Could a flight nurse be your next nursing job?

Published on: 9 Jun 2022

What is a flight nurse, and could it be the job for you?  Find out on RCN Bulletin Jobs.

Could a flight nurse be your next job?

Sara Walsh [square]Flight nurses work in the aeromedical environment, transporting patients to medical facilities via helicopter or fixed-wing plane.

Sara Walsh is a chief critical care flight nurse with Gama Aviation. Here she explains what her job as a flight nurse involves.

What is a flight nurse?

Flight nurses are responsible for the safe transfer of patients – either from the roadside or another medical facility – and are trained to perform emergency medical care in confined spaces.

Flight nurses ensure patients are stabilised and prepared for transfer, and respond to any medical emergencies during the flight, while providing reassurance and comfort to the patient and their family.

I work on fixed-wing planes for an emergency retrieval service, moving patients from one hospital to another. Our assistance can be required any time of the day and we have a rota in place that allows for round-the-clock cover.

We work primarily within the UK and the Channel Islands but my role also involves international travel – for example, we may be called upon to return a patient back to the UK who has become ill whilst on holiday abroad.

Who do flight nurses work with?

Flight nurses work with a variety of other healthcare professionals. On some transfers you will work alongside a doctor, on others you will work with a fellow nurse or a flight paramedic.

The pilots are an essential part of the team – without our pilots, we wouldn’t get anywhere, and they are also able to adjust their flying method to ensure patient safety is maintained.

For example, if the patient being transferred has a condition in which changes in air pressure need to be avoided, the pilot can carry out a sea-level flight, where the air pressure inside the cabin remains the same as on the ground.

To ensure a smooth patient transfer, we also work closely with handling agents, airport fire services when required, and ground ambulances.

What type of patients will I work with?

We work with all types of patients, from those who are very ill on life support to those requiring a specialist intervention or elective surgery at another facility.

We also care for patients requiring repatriation after becoming unwell or getting injured on holiday, people with mental health issues and paediatric and neonatal patients.

Who are flight nurses employed by?

Flight nurses in the UK are employed by private air ambulance companies, with the exception of some helicopter and emergency medical services (HEMS) organisations where nurses have a role within the NHS.

As flight nurses generally are employed by the private sector, we are not on Agenda for Change pay scales, but the role is the equivalent of a band 6. Flight nurse coordinators are equivalent to band 7 and the chief flight nurse role the equivalent of band 8.

What skills and qualifications do you need for the role?

Flight nurses have to be ready to carry out emergency medical care, so a background in the emergency department or critical care nursing is required.
At least three years’ post-registration experience is required for a flight nurse role, with at least two years in a critical care environment.

At my workplace, senior intensive care nurses are preferred, as this allows us to easily organise patient transfers regardless of the level of care required. It also gives us the flexibility to make changes to a planned transfer if a more critical patient needs to take precedence, without having to change the transferring team due to worries about skill mix.

The ability to work autonomously and make quick decisions in a confined, high-stress environment is a must, and practical skills such as cannulation and catheterisation are beneficial. Always expecting the worst is probably the best way to prepare for any flight nursing job.

What should I do if I am interested in a role like this?

If you are interested in a career in flight nursing, my advice would be to gain a solid background in intensive care nursing and complete an intensive care course.

You can also undertake transfer courses and modules to broaden your knowledge and skills, such as the diploma in retrieval and transfer medicine from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and King’s College London’s basic course in aviation medicine.

The RCN critical care and flight nursing forum also has a lot of information, and it is also a good idea to talk to a flight nurse to further understand what the role involves.

Sara Walsh is a chief critical care flight nurse with Gama Aviation.

Search for band 6 nursing jobs on RCN Bulletin Jobs.


This is an abridged version of the article What is a flight nurse – and could it be the job for you? which was first published in Nursing Standard.

Read more careers articles on Nursing Standard