Helicopter Crash Victim: James Taylor

Friends carry the coffin of James Taylor, a flight nurse and Army Reservist killed when his helicopter and another collided in Arizona.
Friends carry the coffin of James Taylor, a flight nurse and Army Reservist killed when his helicopter and another collided in Arizona. (Courtesy Of Traci Taylor)
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Saturday, August 22, 2009

In the aftermath of the crash that killed Traci Taylor's 36-year-old husband, James, she filled an entire hallway with photos of him. "It's sort of our shrine," she said, showing a visitor around her Utah home. "I want our boys to have as many memories of their father as possible."

Tall, energetic and handsome, James Taylor flashes a confident, can-do smile in the photos. In one, he is in the bay of his helicopter in his flight suit, giving a thumbs-up. In another, he is helping carry an injured hiker from a narrow canyon to the helicopter. In still another, a fiery sunset frames the Grand Canyon as Taylor's helicopter flies overhead.

"He was never happier than when he was flying," Traci said. "It was James's dream job."

It had taken James years to work his way up to a job as a flight nurse on a medical helicopter. After graduating from high school near Salt Lake City, he joined the Army and worked as a medic in the Persian Gulf War. Later, Taylor took a job as a hospital therapist while studying to become a nurse. "It came so easy to him," Traci said. "He barely had to study. I used to tell him he should be a doctor."

But James wanted to fly. When a fellow nurse told him that a small helicopter company in Arizona was looking for flight nurses, James hopped in his truck and drove 4 1/2 hours for an interview. He aced that, too, and in 2006 started as a flight nurse for Classic Helicopter Services in Page, Ariz., not far from the Grand Canyon.

Initially, Taylor worked one weekend a month. Later, he went to six-day shifts, sleeping at the Classic hangar. Like many nurses and paramedics, Taylor juggled his flight duties with other jobs to pay the bills, working shifts at a hospital in Salt Lake and teaching combat medics on weekends as an Army Reservist.

It was a lot, but Taylor managed to find plenty of time for his three young boys. They snowboarded, camped and played baseball. Often, Taylor would send his sons text messages while flying. On the day of the crash, June 29, 2008, Taylor sent his middle son a message, "Daddy's flyin high." It was the last day of a six-day shift, and the last message Taylor would send.

Taylor's Classic medical helicopter was one of two on the way to Flagstaff Medical Center only minutes apart on a clear blue afternoon. As a Level 1 trauma center, Flagstaff received numerous patients by helicopter, averaging about 125 transports a month. It was not unusual for two helicopters to be inbound at once.

The helicopters were approaching the hospital's busy helipad from different directions. But because of a communications failure, only one pilot knew that another helicopter was in the area.

Witnesses told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that one of the helicopters appeared to fly up the tail of the other, causing it to yaw to the right, roll over and fall about eight stories to the ground. The second helicopter crashed moments later. It was followed by a shock wave and plumes of white smoke that streamed into the flawless sky.

James Taylor was the only person to survive but died five days later without regaining consciousness.

Federal investigators cited several causes for the crash. They noted that the Classic pilot failed to check in with the hospital's control center, the normal procedure. The Classic dispatcher failed to let his pilot know that a second helicopter was approaching. And the pilot of the second helicopter deviated from a prescribed route to the helipad, making it more difficult for the Classic pilot "to see and avoid it."

The second helicopter was operated for Flagstaff Medical Center by Air Methods, a large for-profit company. In an interview, the company's chief executive, Aaron Todd, disputed the NTSB's finding that his pilot had deviated and said the pilot "was trained to take that exact route." The company has asked the NTSB to reconsider that point and other findings.

Traci Taylor said she tries not to think about the crash. "I do the things I need to do to get the boys to school and baseball practice."

James Taylor was a huge fan of the Boston Red Sox and shared his passion with his boys. During a trip to Boston, he had managed to get a ticket to a game at Fenway Park. "It was his greatest day," Traci said. Ever since, he had planned to take his three young sons.

After the crash, Traci and other family members made it their mission to complete James's dream. With the help of a Boston philanthropist, they got their wish and spent several days in Boston. The boys met World Series hero Curt Schilling and received signed jerseys from Schilling and all-star second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Best of all: The Red Sox won, 7-0.

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