Alison Claunch, MSN, FNP-C, CEN, CFRN
What It Takes to Become a Certified Flight Nurse
What Is a Flight Nurse?
A flight nurse is a registered nurse with the training and experience to provide critical care in transport environments. This can be either rotor (helicopter) or fixed-wing, typically working alongside other medical providers such as paramedics, other nurses, respiratory therapists, nurse practitioners, or physicians; they’re essential for providing top-level patient care when it matters most!
What Does a Flight Nurse Do?
Now that we’ve established what a flight nurse is, we should discuss what the flight nurse does. Flight nurses provide immediate patient care, including assessment, triage, and treatment. These patients include some of the sickest patients you may encounter. Flight nurses are responsible for many things during their shifts. It typically starts with checking off the aircraft and their equipment, along with their partner for the shift. This also includes checking the expiration dates of their medications and equipment during their daily checks. As a flight nurse, you are expected to be ready to respond to a request within minutes of the call at any time during your shift. During a flight, you may have to assist pilots with navigation and be able to communicate via radio transmission. Patient care often includes similar duties found within the emergency department (ED) and intensive care unit (ICU), but care is provided in a much smaller compartment and in unpredictable situations at times. The scope of care is typically broader than what is found in the traditional ED and ICU. It still includes providing immediate care to your patient. You will still assess your patient and develop your treatment plan based on their triage/assessment. Overall, resources are less than what is found within the hospital setting. Flight nurses must be able to think and remain calm in any given situation critically. They must always be aware of their own safety as well as the safety of their crew and patient. They must be able to adapt and handle extreme environments and situations easily. Autonomy is an important attribute for flight nurses to have.
What Types of Patients Do Flight Nurses Work With?
Patients can range in age from the premature neonate to the frailest elderly. Specialized programs focus on certain populations, such as neonates, but this does not mean that as a flight nurse, you will never see this population of patients. Sometimes, those specialized teams may be unavailable, or your transport team may be the best option for the patient at that time. You may transport patients on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) with ventricular assist devices (VAD), balloon pumps, etc. For the most part, these patients will be some of the sickest patients you will encounter. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need your specialty care. No matter the situation, the key is to be able to think critically about the situation you are in, as well as the type of patient, and devise your treatment plan based on that.
How Do You Become a Flight Nurse?
You must be a registered nurse, and some companies require a BSN for hire. Typically, you must obtain at least 3-5 years of experience within the ED or ICU. Experience within both areas is looked at favorably. Immerse yourself in education and learning as much as possible before and after hire. You will be required to obtain an advanced certification within a specified time after hire (usually one year).
Sometimes there are as many as 60 applicants for one Flight Nurse job opening. You can get a jump on the competition by getting your CFRN® Advanced Certification before you apply.
What Kind of Environment Do Flight Nurses Work In?
The environment consists of working in a smaller compartment alongside your partner. You will provide care on scenes of medical emergencies and within the ED and ICU settings. There will be transfers from hospital to hospital. Flight nurses can work 12- or 24-hour shifts. You are expected to be available and ready to provide care any time of the day or night. This can be in the middle of summer when it is blazing hot or in the middle of winter when it is subzero outside. The changing environmental factors are probably the biggest change for most nurses to become accustomed to. The physical demands and stressors of flight must be considered as well. The vibration from the aircraft and changes in weather conditions can take more of a toll on your body than you would initially expect.
Is It Safe?
It is very safe. When you consider and look at previous crashes, the large majority are preventable. Most often, they are secondary to pushing the aircraft’s limits or thinking it won’t happen to me. This is where it is important to speak up as a flight crew member. It takes three to go and only one to say no.
All crew members must agree to take the flight. If one person feels uncomfortable, then the flight is not taken. Pushing weather is another hazard that has led to previous crashes as well. There are certain minimums that must be met before a flight can be undertaken, and those minimums should always be enforced. Having great communication with your pilot and partner is important in these situations. Briefings with the crew occur at the beginning of every pilot shift to discuss the anticipated weather conditions during that shift.
Are There Any Special Certifications That Are Needed to Be a Flight Nurse?
The Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN®) is the preferred certification and will be required usually within one or two years after hire. Some states require nurses to hold an emergency medical technician (EMT) license to practice as well.
What Are the Ongoing Education Requirements?
Once you obtain your advanced certification, you will have to obtain 100 hours of continuing education over the next four years to recertify or sit for the exam again. You will also have to maintain PALS, ACLS, BLS, NRP, and an advanced trauma course (such as TNCC, ATLS, or TNATC). You will also be responsible for the company’s required education. It is important never to stop studying and learning. The difficult patients you encounter should drive you to continue to learn and advance yourself as a flight nurse.
Is There a Network of Flight Nurses or People to Connect With?
There are a few societies, such as the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), Air and Surface Transport Nurses Association (ASTNA), and the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN®), just to name a few, for networking possibilities. Conferences such as FlightBridgeED Air and Surface Transport (FAST) Symposium, Air Medical Transport Conference (AMTC), Critical Care Transport Medicine Conference (CCTMC), and National Teaching Institute (NTI) and Critical Care Exposition are all great resources for continuing education and networking as well.
A seasoned partner is one of the greatest people that can help you when you first enter the industry. Their experience and guidance are such an advantage. As a new flight nurse, you should look for a mentor willing to take the time and help you develop and hone the skills necessary for success.
Suggestions for Studying for the Advanced Certification Exams?
First, look at the content outline and understand the content that is being tested. This content can be found on the BCEN® website and other useful resources. At FlightBridgeED, we are committed to your success in passing the advanced certification exam on the first attempt. We offer a full review course, resource materials, and practice exams to ensure success.
Get Certified to Become a Flight Nurse
Certification for flight nurses is issued through the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN®). This is the only certification for flight nurses. CAMTS-accredited air medical services typically require flight nurse certification (CFRN®) to be hired or to continue functioning as a flight nurse after a specific period.
As we mentioned, a certified flight nurse is trained in pre-hospital, critical care, and emergency medicine. If you have the experience part taken care of, your next step will be passing the flight nurse (CFRN®) exam. This exam is notoriously difficult to pass and is designed to test your mastery of a massive range of knowledge rigorously – it’s also expensive. It is highly recommended that you attend a review course prior to sitting for your exam attempt. Once you’ve completed your review course, you can schedule your exam. The exam is taken in person at designated, proctored testing centers around the world. The exam consists of 175 questions (25 of which are trial questions and do not count toward your overall score) and requires. You are given 3 hours in which to complete the exam. You will need to answer 106 items correctly to achieve a passing score of 70%. Additionally, the exam will allow you 5 practice questions before starting the exam so that you can better understand the exam system before actually beginning.
Never stop learning and become a mentor for someone else
If you want to know how we used to treat patients, read a textbook. If you want to know how we are treating them now, read a professional journal, and if you want to know how we will treat them in the future, listen to podcasts, read blog articles, go to professional conferences; find experts in a discipline and ask them to teach you everything they know. We say we “practice” medicine because there is always something new to learn. In the fast-paced profession of a flight nurse, it’s important to learn and grow constantly. Just as you initially studied to become a nurse, you need to continue studying and hone your skills every day. Throughout your career, you’ll always need to have a mentor who will help guide you and teach you. A mentor is INVALUABLE. They have been where you want to go and can show you how to get there.
Once you become a flight nurse, just as with your professional license, there are requirements that you will need to complete every 4 years in order to maintain your certification. You’ll still have to maintain your nursing license requirements as well as your advanced certification requirements. All of the hours at FlightBridgeED can be used for ALL OF YOUR CERTIFICATIONS & LICENSES (your professional license and your Advanced Certifications).
It’s important to pass on what we learn to the next generation. The mentors you have in your life won’t always be there. It’s a sobering thought to realize the responsibility of carrying on the wisdom of those who have come before us and the wisdom we have gained on our own. Seek wise counsel – seek out mentors, and always be a mentor to others so that you can pass on your legacy to those who come after.
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When you fly, you become part of a family
This is true of any field in the medical profession, but it is especially true of medical flight teams. It’s a stressful career with long hours and high stakes. But for flight nurses, flight paramedics, and pilots, the entire crew becomes family. That means when you’re in the air or on the ground, you look after each other. It’s important to separate your personal life and your work life and to have balance. Problems at home can’t stop you from performing when someone else’s tomorrow is at stake. You are likely the highest trained medical provider for miles when you are on a scene call. Sometimes when you are on interfacility transports, you may not be the highest trained medical provider, but you may be the person who sees things differently, through the lens of your experience and saves the life of someone at just the right moment. That might sound scary or like a heavy responsibility (and it definitely is), but that’s the job, and it should never be taken alone. No matter what happens, the person next to you has to know that they can rely on you, just as you rely on them. Medical flight teams are always there for one another at the bedside or at the base – even if that means staying up late into the night to help someone who needs them more than ever before.
Becoming a Certified flight nurse is more than just an exciting job… It’s a lifestyle. It’s challenging, it’s gratifying, it’s tough, but it’s worth it. You can make a difference in people’s lives in a way that no one else can. Passionate about helping people? Interested in aviation? Want to make a difference in the world? A Certified flight nurse is the perfect job for you.