DEXTER The LifeNet of New York air medical base at Watertown International Airport has been dedicated posthumously to pilot Michael J. Wheeler of Watertown.
A ceremony was held Friday at the airport, Route 12F, town of Hounsfield, to recognize Mr. Wheelers achievements throughout his career with LifeNets operator, Air Methods, based in Englewood, Colo. About 100 attendees at the ceremony also celebrated the return of air medical transportation to the north country.
Air Methods founder Roy Morgan said he recalled that in 1992, a man talked to him about joining LifeNet, but expressed interest in having that transportation come to Watertown. That man was Mr. Wheeler.
Throughout Mr. Wheelers career with the company, Mr. Morgan said, he was a pilot, and was chief pilot prior to his departure from the company in 2008.
I must say, it was a great loss when we couldnt keep up with him, Mr. Morgan said.
Jack Keenan, a remote safety inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration in Boston, Mass., said that was because Mr. Wheeler had the utmost passion for his job and for helicopters.
He particularly disliked people who would take an increased risk, get caught and then play the trump card, Mr. Keenan said. That was supposed to be the get-out-of-jail-free card, but not when they worked with Mike.
Mr. Keenan worked with Mr. Wheeler for about two years, from 2008 to 2010, when Mr. Wheeler was a flight safety inspector for the FAA in Boston.
I guess the message I have for all of you working at this base, and in this business, is Michael J. Wheeler set standards, Mr. Keenan said. If you can run this base to the standards Mike maintained, it will be one hell of a job.
Chris Bassett, Air Methods director of operations, recalled the time Mr. Wheeler spent training him as Air Methods opened a similar base in Miami.
He didnt leave me without continued help and mentoring, Mr. Bassett said. Im just so proud to be here, and to be a part of this. Mike wold have loved this, and this would have been his second home. I miss him.
Mr. Wheeler was killed in a helicopter crash in May 2010 in Boxborough, Mass., while on a training flight.
His wife, Barbara J., is the director of Flower Memorial Library in Watertown. She said that after hearing stories of her husband, she knows he was extremely lucky to find his passion early in life and stick with it throughout his career.
It made me happy to hear Air Methods put Mikes name on the side of the helicopter, Mrs. Wheeler said. Now, every time they take a flight, a little piece of Mikes heart goes up there in the sky.
The helicopter is one of two in the north country; a base soon will open in Potsdam. Since the Watertown base opened June 1, it has had eight successful flights to area hospitals.
The medical flights, according to base supervisor William D. Stubba, take about 30 minutes from the Calcium area to a Syracuse hospital, or about 50 minutes from Watertown to Fletcher Allen Health Care, Burlington, Vt.