2 Idaho EMS pilots live where they work
Classic Air Medical, purchased by Intermountain Health hospital, has allowed 2 Burley pilots to return and stay home
By Laurie Welch
The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho
BURLEY, Idaho — It's not unusual for helicopter pilots to commute hundreds of miles to work — but a new emergency medical services helicopter in town has two pilots who grew up in Mini-Cassia — and now live and work here.
Intermountain Health's Classic Air Medical, purchased in September by the hospital, enticed one former Mini-Cassia resident to return to Heyburn — and allowed a second Burley pilot who was commuting to work in Winnemucca, Nevada — to work here.
"It's rare for pilots to live where they work," Classic Air Medical pilot Nick Soto of Heyburn said.
Soto, 36, graduated from Minico High School, and Kaci Carpenter, 26, graduated from Burley High School.
Soto, who is married with three children, previously lived in Cedar City, Utah, and spent time as a wildfire helicopter pilot, as an EMS pilot in Arizona near Lake Powell and as a Nevada tour pilot. All the jobs took him away from his wife and kids — sometimes for as long as three months at a time.
"I wanted to be home every night and when I heard through the grapevine in February 2022 that Intermountain bought Classic Air Medical, I was the first one to put my hand up. I'm, like, that's my hometown," Soto said. "It was a no-brainer."
Moving back to Mini-Cassia though, "was a little bitter-sweet," he said.
Although the move meant being able to see his mom, dad and sisters often, the couple also enjoyed their Utah home — and that made it tough to leave.
"Honestly, when I graduated from high school and went into the Marine Corps, I never wanted to move back to Burley," Soto said. "But, the move gives me the opportunity to be home every night and that's worth everything."
Soto's father agrees.
"We were ecstatic when he moved back here," Dan Soto said. "Now my whole family is here. Nick was gone for a long time."
When Carpenter was working as a Las Vegas, Nevada, tour pilot and the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company put its pilots on a seven-day-on, seven-day-off schedule — and she started returning to Idaho on her days off.
When she took a job in Winnemucca, where she worked 14 days and then had 14 days off, she continued coming back to Idaho during her downtime.
She'd worked there about a year when she heard a rumor that Classic Air Medical was coming to Burley.
"I was in disbelief and never thought it would happen," Carpenter said. "Then I was nervous that I wouldn't get the position."
Taking the Classic Air Medical job in Burley, meant no more traveling back and forth, she said.
The switch also made her family members in the Burley area happy.
"They like me flying and they like to hear my stories," Carpenter said. "Sometimes they are outside when I'm flying over and they wave to me."
Carpenter recalls wanting to be a pilot as a child as she watched crop dusters fly over her home, and, at about age 11 during a visit to the hospital, she asked an EMS helicopter pilot a lot of questions.
But as a child, she never dreamed she'd actually become a pilot.
Also, there are not many women helicopter pilots.
"It's still a very male-dominated field," Carpenter said.
The percentage of female helicopter pilots is low, she said, hovering at 3 percent, but as time moves on more women are becoming involved in aviation.
Soto also always had a passion for flying and a particular interest in helicopters.
"I always wanted to fly a helicopter," he said. "I just liked the way they hover and fly low. They can carry extended loads and land anywhere, like on a mountain ridge."
After high school graduation, he went into the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as an aircraft mechanic. After discharge, he learned the GI Bill would cover his training as a pilot.
Both pilots worked as flight instructors after certification, before moving on to other jobs.
They first met while working for the Las Vegas tour company, which duties included flying over the city and the Grand Canyon.
While flying is inherently safe, Soto said, it's also unforgiving when something goes wrong.
Learning not to push the weather minimums is one of the top skills that keep helicopter pilots safe, he said.
"Weather plays such a big part in safely flying," Carpenter said. "And you have to make that split-second go or no-go decision when someone is waiting on you and it can be stressful."
One of the best parts of the job, both say, is no two days are alike.
"You never know when the call is coming or where you'll be going," Carpenter said.
Some of their calls involve transporting patients from one hospital to another, including some out-of-state hospitals, but, on other calls, they pick up trauma or medical patients just about anywhere southern Idaho has to offer.
"Interstate landings are my favorite," Carpenter said. "If I get the chance to shut down the freeway, that's an exciting day for me."
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