PETE V. ORTIZ, JR.

BASE PILOT AND BASE SAFETY REPRESENTATIVE, REACH 5

It’s easy to put your best face forward with the obvious customers. But there are so many other people we run into. They see a flight suit, they see a helicopter on the roof, they see REACH. And they go out and spread the word. It’s hard to measure, but I consider them customers as much as anybody else. I spend the most time with these people.

Pete’s background

“I’m a military vet,” Pete shares, “Army and Coast Guard. I was in the Army for six and a half years, and the Coast Guard for fourteen and a half. I did a lot of MEDEVAC and Search & Rescue for the Coast Guard.”

Pete & REACH

“My job is extremely fulfilling,” says Pete, who celebrates 10 years with REACH this month. “I have a job where I get to see an outcome that positively affects peoples’ lives. That really drives me, that really motivates me. And I enjoy the challenges of the mission.”

Pete connected with REACH after his military service. “I enjoy flying, but things like doing Power Line Surveys were not very interesting to me. I discovered REACH in late 2003. I was contacted regarding the Lakeport base, and I was hired as part of the first group of pilots for REACH 6, and the first group trained in Night Vision Goggles at REACH.”

Pete is also the BSR (Base Safety Rep) for REACH 5 in Redding. “Anything safety related comes through me,” Pete says. “In the aviation world, we have some pretty serious safety-related issues. But safety isn’t just about stuff in the air. There might be issues concerning fatigue,” he shares, “or once we had a desk lamp that burnt a binder and almost started a fire. Or it can be a cold, icy sidewalk, and someone slips and falls on their way to the helicopter.”

Pete shares one of his primary responsibilities related to safety. “This is a high-risk profession, one of the most dangerous professions in this country. If there’s one thing as a safety rep that I try to do—and this includes doing it for myself—I try to defeat the complacency monster,” he says. “Complacency is insidious, and can affect anyone.  It is up to all of us to be aware of this daily.”

To Pete, who is “the customer”?

“Well, there are the obvious customers,” Pete says. “Our patients, their families, first responders, hospital staff. But there’s also “latent” customers out there that we don’t really even talk about—all the people we run into daily.”

When he’s out there in the world, Pete, along with the other pilots, has a special magnet. “I call it ‘the lure of the flight suit’,” he says. “I put on my flight suit, I go to work, then maybe to Starbucks, the grocery store. And people want to talk to me. ‘Hey, do you fly that red helicopter?’ ‘Did you transport so-and-so two months ago?’ Sometimes it’s a complaint, ‘How come this happened?’”

How does he connect with the customer?

“By being professional and human,” Pete states. “We have a job to do, and we need to do it well. We need to be receptive, and let them know that we’re human, too, and not come across as overly confident or arrogant or ‘better than’.”

To illustrate…

Pete prefaces his story by talking about the fact that not all transports have happy outcomes—sometimes lives cannot be saved. However, regardless of the outcome, REACH consistently receives positive feedback due to the dedication, effort and skill that are evident in every single situation.

“There was a scene call a couple years ago,” Pete says. “The patient was a high schooler, 16 years old. He was running in a track event and collapsed near the finish line. We landed on the football field, in front of hundreds of students, parents, faculty. And there was a soccer game going on, too. Talk about a high-visibility scene call! The boy didn’t survive. Yet what speaks to how we do our job is that everyone that witnessed the effort saw us as professional, as doing the best we could, quickly, competently and safely. Despite the outcome, we were able to create a positive within the situation. I had a co-worker say to me not too long ago, ‘you can be hot, you can be tired, and you may feel like you’re having a “rough” day, and maybe it is. But we must remember that we deal with patients and their families that are definitely having the worst day of their life.’  Our rough days are just inconveniences.”

“Squirrel!”

Yepper, I am guilty of watching the movie “UP” (more than once). And if any of you know of what I speak, then you’re guilty, too.

For the uninitiated, and for the sake of this article, “Squirrel” is code speak for “Distraction.” Yes sir, those little things that constantly bombard us, trying to redirect us from the task at hand. If you have seen the movie, you know what I am talking about.

Guilt is an emotional side effect. It is that unsettling feeling that we experience after a distraction leads to, well, you know, a screw up (“technical term”). With that said, like many aviators, if not all, I have my share of “war stories” on this issue. I will fess up here by telling one.

Many years ago, another pilot and I came close to landing with the landing gear UP, after completing a “daring rescue.” A fishing boat had run aground not far from the shoreline. We hoisted the fishermen from the boat and proceeded to air taxi (low flight) to a landing zone on shore. Luckily, I scanned the landing gear handle, and noticed the gear was still UP (I keep hearing that word). I reached down and lowered the landing gear handle.

The other pilot and I stared at each other, embarrassment and guilt passed across our faces. No words were spoken; we both knew we almost screwed up. Nothing heroic there; I was the co-pilot doing my job, but the other pilot, crew chief, and myself, came close to missing the landing gear on short final. Why?… because there was a Squirrel in the cockpit, and we were chasing it. We were distracted by the moment: good hoist, survivors, feeling heroic for a job well done. Unfortunately the job was not done, and we let our guard down.

Distractions come in many flavors, and sometimes disguised as good deeds. It is our job to focus and finish the task at hand, AND move on to the next one, until mission complete. No Squirrels Allowed.