Life Flight copter flying

Duke Life Flight Takes Off

Launched in 1985, the critical care service saves lives across the Carolinas and Virginia

When a patient is in crisis, whether it's due to a car crash or in the moments following a life-threatening diagnosis at a rural North Carolina hospital, there is no time to spare.

Duke Life Flight’s helicopters and ambulances, along with the specialized medical staff from Duke University Hospital, has been providing rapid life-saving care to critical patients since 1985.

“Life Flight is a service for the community and the hospital,” said Dr. Gregory Georgiade, who served as Duke Life Flight’s medical director for nearly 35 years before retiring in 2023. “It is an outreach service, an extension of what Duke can bring to bear for care across the state.”

Georgiade, Dr. Joseph Moylan and Rita Weber, head nurse of the Duke’s emergency department, pitched the idea of aviation transport to drastically reduce the time between injury and care.

In 1985, Duke Life Flight became the first hospital-based helicopter service in North Carolina. Photo: Duke Medical Center Archive.

After 18 months of planning, Duke Life Flight conducted its first transport on March 1, 1985.

More than 300 nurses applied to join Duke Life Flight’s first team, and eight were selected. Candidates completed four sets of interviews and a test flight to prove they wouldn’t get sick in the air.

“It was a rigorous process,” Weber said in an interview in 2005 for Duke Life Flight’s 20-year anniversary book. “These nurses hit the ground running.”

The team served 1,019 patients in the first year. Less than a year after its first flight in 1985, a second helicopter was added to the fleet.

Services expanded in 1989 to include ground ambulances, bringing rolling ICUs to patients.

Duke Life Flight, with hubs across North Carolina, now operates three helicopters and 12 ambulances. A team of around 125 professionals conducts 4,700 flight and ground missions annually, among other duties and on-campus events.

An item in Intercom, the newspaper for Duke University Medical Center employees, marks the beginning of the Life Flight service. Image: Duke Medical Center Archives.

“It’s not a job you can come in and work your shift and go home and put it behind you,” Life Flight Administrative Director René Borghese said during an interview with Working@Duke. “They’re dedicated to their craft and very motivated.”

In 2017, a pilot, two flight nurses and a patient were killed after a Duke Life Flight helicopter crashed in northeastern North Carolina.

During a memorial service in Duke University Chapel to honor the Life Flight team, Borghese, who joined Life Flight as a flight nurse in 1993, shared that all members of the team have one thing in common – a strong desire to save lives.

“This desire in and of itself doesn’t make them different from the amazing teams of clinical professionals who work in the hospitals in clinics,” she said during the memorial. “What sets this group apart is their desire to do so while putting themselves in harm’s way. And, without the safety net of an entire health care team, they simply depend on each other.”

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