MAKING A DIFFERENCE

December 16, 2003 11:00 pm
BACK IN THE COCKPIT: Pete Baranko, Karl Bauman, Jason Buchanan and Julian Pridmore-Brown are all former commercial airline pilots who were laid off around the time of the 9/11 terror attacks. The men now fly for Air Life of Oregon, helping transport critically ill or injured patients. (The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH).
BACK IN THE COCKPIT: Pete Baranko, Karl Bauman, Jason Buchanan and Julian Pridmore-Brown are all former commercial airline pilots who were laid off around the time of the 9/11 terror attacks. The men now fly for Air Life of Oregon, helping transport critically ill or injured patients. (The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH).

By Bill Rautenstrauch

Observer Staff Writer

Going from big time to small time isn't necessarily a bad thing.

After 9/11, it happened to pilots Jason Buchanan, Julian Pridmore-Brown, Karl Bauman and Pete Baranko.

These days, instead of criss-crossing the nation or soaring over oceans to faraway lands in commercial airliners, the men pick up sick or injured passengers in small towns in Eastern Oregon, and deliver them into the care of medical centers in Portland, Spokane, Boise, Walla Walla or Lewiston.

They like what they're doing.

"There are some nights when you go non-stop. You're tired, but you go home thinking you've really done something," said Baranko.

The four men fly for Bend-based Air Life of Oregon, which opened its Northeast base at the Union County Airport in February 2002.

Of the many things they have in common, this stands out: all of them were working for major commercial airlines prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Two were laid off during difficult economic times just before 9/11, and two others lost their jobs shortly after.

When the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers, Buchanan, 39, was employed by Royal Airlines of Canada.

He was flying wide-bodied Air Buses to Europe, the Hawaiian Islands, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and other places.

After 9/11, he didn't know for certain that massive Royal Airlines layoffs were coming — but there was some writing on the wall.

"I was the first pilot to take a plane to Europe for Royal after 9/11," he said. "I remember on that flight I talked on the radio to a guy flying a 777. He said he had seven passengers," Buchanan said.

On Oct. 31, 2001, Buchanan flew to Paris. When he returned home, he went to Boise to visit relatives. There he learned he was out of a job.

"(The airline) called and said there was no need for me to come back. I had no idea it was going to happen," he said.

Pridmore-Brown was one of many United Airlines pilots who lost their jobs in the months immediately before 9/11. He was laid off in March 2001 as the country's economic slide worsened.

Pridmore-Brown, 35, was flying domestic flights out of San Francisco at the time he received word of his layoff. He was one of hundreds of United pilots to lose their jobs.

"It was a shock to see a company that had been in business 76 years come tumbling down," he said.

Bauman, 39, was working for Delta Airlines and based in Orlando, Fla., when, in the wake of 9/11, he was handed a pink slip.

"It was the same for me as for a lot of others. After 9/11, the airlines laid off a lot of pilots," he said. "There are so many experienced pilots out of work now."

Baranko, 32, was flying 747s and DC-8s for Southern Airlines and Emery Worldwide. Based in the Chicago area, he often flew to Japan, South Africa, Australia, Greece and other points.

He was laid off in the summer of 2001.

"I was one of about 500 pilots who ended up out on the street," he said.

The four did what most people do when they become unemployed.

They wrote resumes, filled out job applications, took what work they could find and hoped for something better.

Buchanan, for one, filed for unemployment and thought about starting a new career.

"I was seriously considering going back to school and becoming a registered nurse," he said.

But, as the saying goes, one thing led to another.

Air Life of Oregon, headquartered in Bend, announced it was opening a Northeast base in La Grande.

The company contracts with Air Methods of Engelwood, Colo., for pilots and mechanics.

Bauman got his Air Life job through that firm, and called Buchanan, whom he had known before. Buchanan applied and was hired, too.

Baranko was networking, making contacts with people he knew in the industry. A former co-worker who had gone to work at Air Methods told him about Air Life's soon-to-be opened Northeast base.

Baranko put in a resume. In the summer of 2002, he traveled to Oregon for an interview, and was hired.

Pridmore-Brown was working as a flight instructor at Redmond when he heard about the new Air Life base. He too was a successful applicant.

Even though the jobs paid far less than what the men made with the commercial airlines, there was one big plus: the airplane used to transport patients.

In its Northeast operations, Air Life flies the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12, a single engine turbo prop highly thought of in the industry.

"I was hoping for a chance to fly a PC-12. It's extremely advanced. A lot of the systems are comparable to those of commercial airplanes," said Baranko.

Air Life flight crews consist of a pilot, a critical care registered nurse and a respiratory therapist.

Flight requests usually originate with local hospitals and emergency medical systems. Air Life bases are staffed around the clock, and crews are ready to fly at a moment's notice.

Almost daily, those crews work with people in life-and-death situations. Helping people survive those situations has its rewards, the pilots say.

"Flying and helping people out is more rewarding than flying a load of kids to Disney World," Bauman said. "It's especially satisfying when you get to help out with a younger kid who is in critical condition."

Buchanan echoed that sentiment.

"It's a totally different kind of flying," he said. "It's the difference between flying a busload of Frenchman who don't speak English and taking a mother who is having difficulty delivering twins."

Buchanan said he had such a flight his first time in the air for life flight. "We saved the mom and babies," he said with a smile.