40 Years of Life Flight, 40 Days of Thanks

Jim Schultea (left) with his son Austin Schultea, BSN, RN, CCRN Clinical Coordinator Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit Chair, Recruitment, Retention & Recognition Council
Jim Schultea (left) with his son Austin Schultea, BSN, RN, CCRN, Clinical Coordinator, Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit at the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute

The first bullet struck Jim Schultea in the lower abdomen. When the second burrowed into his lower leg, the undercover officer knew he was in trouble. In the thick darkness of an autumn night in Houston, Schultea and his partner, who had also been shot after a scuffle with a car thief, managed to make it back to their car to radio for help.

Schultea lay on a stretcher in the ambulance trying to remain calm. “I just kept telling myself that cowboys live forever with gunshot wounds,” he said. Then he heard the whirring rotors of the approaching Memorial Hermann Life Flight® helicopter.

It was 1986, just 10 years after Memorial Hermann launched its visionary Life Flight program, the first air ambulance service in the state and only the second in the nation. But in a single decade, trauma care in the Houston area had already expanded to become one of the most sophisticated programs in the country, and Life Flight’s achievements have only mounted in the decades since.

For Schultea, the trip to the hospital took less than 10 minutes. Within a half hour of his first call for help, a fraction of the time it would’ve taken an ambulance to get him there, the officer was being wheeled into surgery. When he awoke hours later, he found a stranger at his bedside: A tall, slim cowboy with wire-rim glasses, a bottle-brush mustache and no-nonsense attitude named Dr. James H. “Red” Duke.

“He said, ‘How are you feeling, boy?’” Schultea recalled, with a laugh. “He was just a genuinely, all-around good guy. I felt very blessed that he was my surgeon because he was the best – the top doc in trauma. Anyone who wakes up from surgery would be tickled to death to see Red Duke standing over them.”

Duke at Life Flight

The renowned UTHealth trauma surgeon – who passed away nearly one year ago after a long and illustrious career at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC), the campus which is home to the recently renamed Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute – left behind a legacy of revolutionizing trauma care, including one of his most notable accomplishments that continues to save lives today: A ground-breaking idea devised by Dr. Duke and other Hermann Hospital leaders to found an air medical flight program.

Today, Aug. 1, marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the Life Flight program, which has gained a worldwide reputation as a premier air ambulance service that set the standard for countless other services created since. In the decades since the first white Alouette lifted off the Hermann Hospital helipad to pick up a house fire burn victim and transfer two trauma patients from another area hospital, Life Flight remains the only hospital-based air ambulance serving Houston and its surrounding communities. Over the years, the program has expanded its fleet to six helicopters and 74 crew members, saving thousands of trauma victims like Schultea along the way.

“From its earliest days, Life Flight has played a critical role in preserving Dr. Duke’s vision of providing a robust trauma care system for all patients, regardless of their wealth or status or whether they lived in the city, the suburbs, the rural outskirts or the frontier, as he liked to call it,” said Eric Von Wenckstern, administrative director of Life Flight.

“His passion was taking care of mankind, helping all people who were injured or sick, and making sure we were doing our best and maintaining the highest standards of care to ensure the best possible outcomes for patients. As we celebrate another watershed moment in Life Flight’s history, I know Dr. Duke would be immensely proud of what the program has achieved in 40 short years,” said Tom Flanagan, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Memorial Hermann-TMC.


Since Aug. 1, 1976, Life Flight helicopters have flown more than 150,000 missions, operating around-the-clock, 365 days a year, weather permitting. The signature red EC 145 helicopters, which are now stationed at five bases across Houston, fly to locations within a 150-mile radius of the Texas Medical Center to rescue people whose lives are on the line. Any day, any time, anywhere across the Greater Houston area, a pilot, a flight nurse and a flight paramedic can be there to help within minutes of receiving a call. Mid-flight, they can then apply tourniquets, open up blocked airways, administer life-saving blood products and medications, bring people back to life and deliver them into the healing hands of trauma surgeons and other physicians who can mean the difference between life or death.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Life Flight,” said Schultea, echoing the sentiment shared by scores of others who have flown with Houston’s “saviors in the sky.”

Over the years, Life Flight helicopters have become larger and more technologically advanced, now carrying blood products and liquid plasma, and offering mobile ultrasound technology and other advanced imaging tools that allow the crew to diagnose patients in flight so trauma teams on the ground below can adequately prepare for the patient’s arrival.

Life Flight is even capable of flying and landing in areas it previously couldn’t access, thanks to state-of-the-art night vision goggles that detect hazards and obstructions in the dark. In addition, two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration certified Life Flight to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR), making it the first air-ambulance program in Southeast Texas granted this authority that allows the crew to safety fly when visibility is limited or clouds are low.

“It’s amazing to see how much Life Flight has transformed since its founding 40 years ago,” said Dr. Joseph Love, who is only the second Medical Director of Life Flight  in the program’s history. “The program has evolved from a service that functions much like ambulances do today – hastening trauma patients as quickly as possible to the hospital – to a sophisticated and state-of-the-art program that begins delivering advanced, prehospital trauma care in the sky. We are now bringing the lifesaving capabilities of an emergency center directly to the patient. We are witnessing the future of trauma, not just in Houston, but across the country.”

To celebrate Life Flight’s storied history of service, Memorial Hermann today kicked off a campaign – “40 Years of Life Flight, 40 Days of Thanks” – to extend its appreciation to the Houston community for four decades of support that have fostered Life Flight’s growth and success. The campaign kicked off this morning atop the John S. Dunn Heliport at Memorial Hermann-TMC with the presentation of an official proclamation from Mayor Sylvester Turner, delivered by Houston City Council Member Jack Christie, declaring Aug. 1, 2016 as “Memorial Hermann Life Flight Day.” The presentation included the official unveiling of special anniversary logo decals for the aircrafts and patches for the crewmembers’ uniforms in order to commemorate the historic milestone.

“Today is a special day, not just for Life Flight, but for the entire city of Houston, as we reflect back on the pioneering leadership that helped make this program possible and celebrate the many accomplishments that have defined Life Flight’s reputation as a trailblazer among air ambulance services,” said Brian Dean, Senior Vice President and CEO of Memorial Hermann-TMC.


In addition, the Memorial Hermann Foundation would like to thank the community for its continued philanthropic support to ensure that Life Flight remains a vital part of Houston’s trauma care network. To correspond with the anniversary, the Foundation launched its own campaign encouraging donations of $40 to honor Life Flight’s 40 years of service.  Provided as a community service by Memorial Hermann, Life Flight operates as a hospital-based, non-profit organization and relies on community support and fundraising efforts to pay for the service. It costs about $3 million annually to support the program, none of which comes from tax dollars.

Throughout the next 40 days, the Life Flight team will be showing their gratitude in various ways, including extending their thanks to EMS partners and first responders throughout the region who serve a key role in helping Life Flight retrieve Houston’s critically ill and injured patients, and by visiting campuses across the Memorial Hermann Health System for individual meet-and-greets and to thank colleagues for their partnership in saving lives.

Memorial Hermann would like to invite you, the community, to please join us in the celebration by sharing your Life Flight story and extending your thanks for their service on Facebook, Twitter or other social media channels using the hashtag #LifeFlight40.

Learn more about Life Flight’s 40th anniversary celebration or the history of Life Flight.


  1. Thank you Life Flight team for all you do for our patients and their families. You are not only fast and efficient, you bring them out of danger and to the rest of our medical team members to take over and start saving lives when possible. Time is of the essence in saving lives, and you are essential to our patient-centered mission and a key component. As a Certified Medical Interpreter, I can’t remember how many times I have been part of the medical updates given to the LEP ( Limited English Proficient) patients and/or their families after they have arrived to the NICU, the PICU or any of the adult ICU’s through you. Thank you all! Dr. Red Duke, your spirit is present in all these great people! Gracias!

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Tashika Varma