Joseph “Woody” Woodard grew up in Kettering, Ohio, and like many high school seniors he was trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He became interested in becoming a helicopter pilot after seeing an Army recruiting poster.
“I went to flight school at Fort Wolters, Texas, and Fort Rucker, Ala., in 1969. By the time I was 19, I was flying Cobra attack helicopters in Vietnam. I flew in combat missions for almost two years and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Valor, the Silver and Bronze Star, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with the Silver Star and many other medals.”
Woody eventually made his way to Tyler and became a pilot for the newly created medical helicopter program for East Texas Medical Center. “I flew the first mission for ETMC’s Air 1 program on Dec. 20, 1985. We had our inspection from the health department and four hours later were called to fly a burn patient from Tyler to Dallas.”
ETMC’s Air 1 program is celebrating a milestone with 30 years of service to East Texas.
“There have been a lot of memorable flights over the years, but one in particular was a night search for some missing boys on the Neches River. It was raining and the river was over its banks. The county fire marshal and game warden were with me, and we found the boys clinging to a small island. They had started a fire, so we could find them. I got the three boys on board, but didn’t have room for the game warden and fire marshal, so I left them on the island until we could come back. When I took off, the wind blew out the fire. Luckily, they had a radio and could talk me back to their location to pick them up.”
The ETMC Regional Trauma System has an established fleet of three ETMC Air 1 emergency helicopters stationed throughout the region including Tyler, Athens and Mount Pleasant. This allows ETMC to provide high-quality care and rapid transport to residents within 60,000 square miles of the surrounding areas. The fleet is composed of three EC-135 helicopters that are teamed with a pilot, nurse and paramedic. Each aircraft is staffed 24 hours, seven days a week.
“Air 1 is especially beneficial to our rural areas, and when critically ill patients need to get to the hospital right away,” said Program Director Kelly Cox.
ETMC Air 1 is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Air Medical Transport Services. “Safety is the focus every time we fly, and our goal is to complete each mission without any issues,” added Cox. “I am so proud of our team and the countless lives we have saved over the past 30 years. We look forward to continuing to bring excellent patient care to the people of East Texas.”
“What sets ETMC’s program apart from other services is they not only talk about safety, but provide the tools to do the job right including night vision goggles, color weather radar, terrain avoidance systems and the best medical equipment,” added Woody. ETMC Air 1 partners with Metro Aviation, Inc., for the pilots and they receive annual simulator training. “We have been flying for 30 years without an accident because of the dedication of this program.”
Woody says what keeps him coming back each day is the friendship and bonds he has made and his passion for flying. “It’s rewarding to know that you might have had a part in saving someone’s life. Sometimes I will be flying along thinking I can’t believe they pay me to do something I love. I have had the opportunity to fly in both the military and hospital service for 47 years, and I know I will retire one day, but for now I just want to keep on flying.”
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