What Does a Flight Nurse Do? Responsibilities, Pay, and More

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Find out what a flight nurse does, how much they're paid, and what you need to do to pursue this impactful medical career.

[Featured image] A flight nurse and crew carry a patient on a stretcher toward a helicopter for transport to a hospital.
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A flight nurse cares for critically ill patients in a helicopter or plane as they're being transported from the scene of an accident or from one medical facility to another. A valuable component of a health support team, flight nurses ensure that patients' conditions don't worsen as they're being transported to longer term care.

To become a flight nurse, you'll need to earn a nursing license in your state and gain experience working with patients in trauma and critical care units. If you like the fast-paced environment of emergency rooms and don't mind working in small spaces, becoming a flight nurse could be the right step for you.

What is a flight nurse?

Flight nurses are registered nurses who care for patients transported in a helicopter or plane. As a flight nurse, your primary responsibility is to keep patients stable until they arrive at their destination. This work can be intense and unpredictable, but it's also rewarding to provide patients with the care they need before arriving at a medical facility.

What does a flight nurse do?

During transport, flight nurses might provide first aid, resuscitate a patient, monitor vital signs, or insert an IV. Patients tend to be critically ill or severely injured and require constant monitoring. In addition to directly caring for patients, you may be responsible for organizing and maintaining patient charts and other required paperwork, and ensuring the appropriate equipment and supplies are on the airplane or helicopter at all times.

Flight nurses are part of a team of trained medical professionals that includes paramedics, doctors, and the flight crew conducting the patient's transportation. In addition to the medical aid they perform, flight nurses are often also tasked with helping patients board and de-board the aircraft and performing checks on the aircraft and its medical equipment. This can involve cleaning rooms, washing the aircraft, and reviewing expiration dates for drugs.

Flight nurse vs. other types of nursing

The work of a flight nurse is very similar to what you see in an emergency room or intensive care unit. However, flight nurses do this work in much smaller spaces and under extreme conditions that may include severe weather and exposure to harmful chemicals and debris.

The work environment is the most significant difference between flight nursing and other types of nursing. While you may work in hospitals, you could also find work in fire departments, medical transportation companies, search and rescue organizations, government agencies, and military bases.

Safety risks of working as a flight nurse

Flight nurses can occasionally work in high-risk environments. You may be dispatched in inclement weather, with heavy rain, fog, or snow that reduces visibility. On the ground, you may respond to accident scenes where gas leaks and debris like broken glass present hazards. In the air, turbulence can interfere with your work with patients. For these reasons, your flight nurse training includes emergency response training and learning to be aware of your surroundings.

Skills needed to become a successful flight nurse

Every flight nurse is a registered nurse, and they have a unique set of skills that help them successfully work with high-needs patients in turbulent environments. These skills include technical skills directly related to the field of nursing, and workplace skills that help them interact with others and make decisions.

Technical skills

Flight nurses must be able to provide emergency medical care to patients. Your training can include the following technical skills:

  • Advanced cardiac life support

  • Airway and mechanical ventilation

  • Basic life support

  • Chest X-ray interpretation

  • Neonatal resuscitation

  • Pediatric advanced life support

  • Transport techniques

  • Ventilator training

You may develop these skills through coursework you take when preparing to be a registered nurse, certification programs, or hands-on experience in a medical facility.

Workplace skills

Successful flight nurses know how to work by themselves and with people. In an emergency, you must be able to communicate with your team members and make decisions at the spur of the moment. The following workplace skills come in handy during your work:

  • Critical thinking: Analyzing and responding to the emergency

  • Effective communication: With team members and patients

  • Resourcefulness: Being able to improvise in the moment and solve problems

  • Self-starter: Not waiting for commands in an emergency

  • Staying calm under pressure: Being able to think clearly and make decisions

  • Time management: Making good use of the time between transports

Flight nurses cannot always predict what will happen to patients. Your ability to adapt and respond at a moment's notice is critical to your work. Also, it helps to be comfortable working in a small, enclosed space and enjoy the occasional adrenaline rush.

Salary and career outlook

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for flight nurses in the United States is $93,8547 [1]. This is considerably higher than the median salary for a registered nurse, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) put at $77,600 in 2021 [2].

Although the US BLS does not provide specific information about this nursing specialty, the organization does expect the need for registered nurses to grow 9 percent between 2020 and 2030 [2].

How to become a flight nurse

To become a specialized flight nurse, you'll first need to gain the required training, certifications, and skills. Here's a step-by-step guide to becoming a flight nurse:

1. Become a registered nurse.

To become a flight nurse, you must be a registered nurse and complete specialized training. If you're currently a licensed practical nurse, you can pursue an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN).

These degrees take between two and four years to complete, depending on the degree you're seeking, the school's requirements, and previous coursework you may be able to transfer. You also must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to earn a nursing license from your state. Read more: How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

2. Gain relevant experience.

Once you have your license as a registered nurse, you may want to gain experience working in high-pressure situations like an emergency room or intensive care unit. Many flight nurses have between three and five years of ER or ICU experience. You also may find it helpful to learn the basics of navigation and flight, but learning to pilot a plane or helicopter shouldn’t be necessary.

3. Earn flight nursing credentials.

The final step to becoming a flight nurse is earning your flight nursing credentials. The Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing and the Air and Surface Transport Nurses Association offer certification programs for registered nurses. In some states, you have up to one year to earn flight nursing certification. However, you may find it beneficial to earn them before applying for positions.

Adding these credentials to your resume may help you get a job, especially when you're trying to enter the field and may not have specific experience working in airplanes and other transport vehicles.

Flight nurse education requirements

Flight nurses typically earn either an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor's degree in nursing as part of their licensing requirements. The degree program you choose is often a matter of personal preference because both types of programs lead to a nursing license.

An associate degree takes less time to earn than a bachelor's degree, making it possible to save time and money as you work toward the degree. However, nurses with bachelor's degrees tend to have more job opportunities in administrative roles and leadership positions.

Some flight nurses choose to continue their education and earn a master's degree in nursing. If you decide to go for a master's degree, consider an accelerated MSN or RN to MSN bridge program, giving you credit for previously earned courses. In most cases, it takes between two and three years to complete an MSN program, but you may be able to reduce this to 18 months if you already have a BSN.

However, keep in mind that employers may want you to have hands-on experience in an ER or ICU before applying for a flight nurse job. The longer you're in school earning credentials, the longer you may have to wait to start the new job.

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Flight nurse practical job experience

Flight nurses typically do not enter the field immediately after graduation from a nursing program and getting a license. You may need hands-on experience in high-pressure environments, such as an emergency room or intensive care unit.

Caring for critically ill patients helps you develop the skills you need and practice the type of work you'll do as a flight nurse, which requires the ability to think quickly in an emergency, monitor your environment, and attend to the immediate needs of the patient.

Certifications and advanced training

Preparing to be a flight nurse also includes certification. To earn the Certified Flight Registered Nurse credential from the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing, you must pass an exam. You can take the exam in a testing center and have three hours to answer 180 questions [3].

Your other option is to take the Transport Professional Advanced Trauma Course offered by the Air and Transport Nurses Association. This two-day hybrid course incorporates online and hands-on learning, covering topics such as transport physiology, trauma, airway and mechanical ventilation, and imaging studies. At the end of the program, you take an exam to demonstrate your knowledge and skills.

Next steps

Your next step depends upon where you are on the path to becoming a flight nurse. If you already have your registered nursing license, now may be the time to earn flight nurse credentials or build your workplace skills.

On the other hand, if you are not already working in nursing, you may want to learn more about the field. Courses on Coursera can help you learn more about nursing principles or human anatomy that can be useful as you prepare to enroll in a nursing program. You can explore these courses and more, including courses on communicating with team members and managing emotions under stressful conditions as you take the next step toward your new career.

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Article sources

1. Glassdoor. "Flight Nurse Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/flight-nurse-salary-SRCH_KO0,12.htm." Accessed August 26, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm." Accessed August 26, 2022.

3. Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing. "FAQs, https://bcen.org/cfrn/faqs/." Accessed August 26, 2022.

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