Chris O’Neil, Line Pilot & Part-time EC Instructor Pilot
REACH 13 – Upland, CA
How would you summarize your job?
I’m an emergency medical helicopter pilot who transports injured or critically ill patients with a medical team.
What do you like most about your job?
Flying! When you can strap a six million dollar helicopter to your butt and just go do it—that’s more fun than any amusement park ride. I also like that we have such diverse missions at this base. In one day, we might do an interfacility transfer to Ridgecrest, then do a scene call in Chino and then go to Santa Barbara. It doesn’t get boring!
What did you want to be when you grew up, and what are some highlights from the time between then and now?
I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. I grew up in a rural area outside of Philly. They had volunteer fire and ambulance. I was a junior fireman and ran on the ambulance as well. One night there was an accident. I was assisting at the scene, and I heard a helicopter. It landed down the road. When the crew came and picked the patient up, I was like, that’s it! That’s what I want to do! So I went to the airport and started taking flying lessons when I was 16. My instructor was retired from the Air Force, and I went into the Army after high school. I loved the camaraderie in the military. I loved the diverse missions. I was in for 21 years, and I flew both helicopters and planes.
After I retired from the Army, I worked for a contractor. I was back in Afghanistan, I was in the Bahamas, then back in the States. I worked for the DEA for four years also. It was fun. I worked counter-narcotics in a King Air.
It’s by far the best job I’ve ever had, especially when you look at the big picture. Everything timed out perfectly with REACH. I’ve been working for REACH since January of 2013. I’ve gotten to fly at all the bases in Southern California. I was a 407 guy at REACH 11 before I came to REACH 13. I’m a company instructor pilot now, too.
It was difficult to change gears from the military to REACH. You know, coming back to rules plus working under part 135 rules. It’s a good thing, though—it’s for everybody’s safety—but it was like drinking out of two fire hoses at first!
One thing I like about REACH is that it just takes one person—if someone feels like there’s any kind of safety risk with a call, we don’t go. It’s all about safely. The most important thing about being confident is not being over confident. Something else you learn here is when to tap out. Whether it’s physical or emotional or whatever, if you’re done, you’re done. Nobody questions that here. I think that’s the thing I appreciate most about REACH.
On the path that led to where you are today, what were your main supportive and/or motivational influences? They can be people, institutions, life events, anything.
I guess my first influence was the very first guy I ever flew with, Retired Colonel “Blackie” Carney. He was called Blackie because he had jet black hair like Elvis. He was the one that kind of pushed me in the direction of going in the military. And in the military, I really learned a lot from the Vietnam-era pilots that I had the opportunity to fly with. I learned so much that was not in books about how to make aircraft do what they can do. These guys had learned to do things with a helicopter that just can’t be done! It was because of their intuition and their life experiences. When I became an instructor in the military, I passed that knowledge along. That’s something else I like about REACH—if you know something, pass it on.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
I wish we could just make it so that no kids ever get injured. The kids are the toughest part; it’s really hard, especially if you have kids yourself.
What do you appreciate most about your coworkers?
The close family feeling, the camaraderie on these teams. It’s very, very close to what it was like in the military. It’s one of the reasons I came to REACH. And everyone here is dynamite—crews, pilots, technicians, admin—everyone.
What do you consider your leading contribution to the REACH mission of “always do what is right for the patient”?
If I had to put it in one word: adaptability. The ability to think outside the box, to think on the fly. You always have to be able to shift and tap into multiple facets. You have to be a chameleon and still represent all the ethics and values, your own and the company’s. You have to be able to wear different hats. If the situation changes—the weather, something with the patient, something with a family member—you have to adapt and put on the right hat.
Who’s in your family?
- Wife: Ada
- Son: Andres (14)
- Son: Joey(22)
- Two dogs and two cats
The most impressive thing here at REACH 13—and it happens all the time—is the synergy between everybody. We play with each other, we listen to what’s going on in each other’s lives, we watch movies, we sit outside and watch the warbirds. But as soon as a call comes in, a switch flips and we’re on. That whole medicine in motion thing works. It makes it so awesome. A buddy of mine, who was also in the military flying AH-64A Apaches, flies EMS as well. He said the coolest thing about this job is that we are now using all our training and skills we used to take lives with, to save lives. That came full circle to me when I moved here to Upland. The whole reason I started this adventure 28 years ago was because I saw a helicopter land on a road. It took me a while to get here, but I made it, and the journey was awesome.
Chris shares a joke:
A little boy said to his mother, “Mommy, when I want to grow up I want to be a pilot!” His mother replied, “I’m sorry, son, but I’m afraid you can’t do both.”