Chopper John and the Hovering Heroes of Lutheran Air III

By Pat Hickey | October 25, 2022

It is 5:30 AM on a weekday in October. John Wooden goes immediately to the blue, yellow and white H-130 helicopter for his morning checklist of about sixty-three items. He did not pour himself a cup of coffee. Wooden entered the hanger but opened the pilot’s cabin door and pulled the check list. Wordlessly, John Wooden opened hatches and inspected medical supplies, blood canisters, the rotor motor, batteries and began cleaning parts.

He turned on computers, checked circuits, helmets, night vision goggles and communication gear. Wooden went to his desk at the back of the hanger and dialed a phone number, “Hello, this is John Wooden with November 863 Lima Hotel. Please, take this ship off flight duty until I can make some repairs. Yes, I can do the job with what I have and thank you.”

Heroes walk among us every day. They are not high school nerds that have been bitten by spiders on a field trip, nor are they endowed by ancient gods with extraordinary gifts. They are like all of us in many ways, but they work at their crafts with professionalism, dignity and that grace born of working their skills with exacting detail repeatedly. Magnificent dancers do not jump out on to the dance floor, untried and untested, but when they have taken the time to learn the steps and move with confidence we go drop – jawed with envy. I do. People who develop their talents and use them to please and heal the rest of us are heroes—coaches, artists, singers, poets, nurses, police officers, and boxers.

This summer while working as a tour guide and deck hand on the Emita II out of Michigan City, I was tasked with clearing the ubiquitous cobwebs from the pilot house and bow and every nook and cranny of the proud vessel. While brooming out the thick webs on the bow, I saw a large woman fall into Trail Creek where the Emita II is berthed for Harbor Country Adventures. This was about twenty yards west of the Franklin Street Bridge and woman was with her teenage son and husband who were fishing the south side of the creek. I shouted, “Man overboard off the starboard bow!” Immediately, the owner of Emita jumped onto and started up one of the wave runner jet boats and darted across Trail Creek. Victor Tieri popped the wave-runner in neutral and jumped to the panic-ed and flailing woman. He pushed her up to the access ladder, but she was too frightened and exhausted to grab the ladder. Skipper Tieri grabbed the ladder and pulled the woman to safety. Victor Tieri shouted for the dockhands who manage the wave-runner and kayak rentals to get a tow line and bring back the wave runner he had jumped from that was bobbing to trail creek. He also ordered that water and a blanket be taken to the woman.

Her husband and son stood helplessly watching a stranger help. They went back to fishing, while the woman dried. I never heard a word of thanks; nor, was this item offered to the news media. Victor Tieri is the CEO of Harbor Country Adventures. He is Errol Flynn, a hero.

I cannot tell you how many times my Walter Mitty mind scripted my rescue of a helpless person from a near tragedy…fire, flood, or fiend. I stood on the bow of the Emita II and killed spiders.

There was not a debate. There was no risk assessment. A skilled athletic neighbor jumped to the rescue. I witnessed this heroic act from the bow of the Emita II with a whisk broom in my hand. Victor Tieri is a practiced lake man, superb athlete, and a daredevil. Victor Tieri loves speed and efficient workmanship. He works at it. I doubt the person renting a kayak, wave runner, or booking tour on the Emita II from Victor Tieri would sense his heroism. Mr. Tieri is one of us.

A member of American Legion Post 451 in Michigan City is a hero among a legion of heroes. John “Chopper John” Wooden is a U.S. Army Veteran and served as a helicopter crew chief at Fort Hood and in Korea from 1993 to 1999. Chopper John is now the crew chief from Lutheran Air III, a medical ambulance and transportation base, one of three Lutheran Air operations, located at Starke County Airport in Knox, Indiana. The tail number for John Wooden’s craft is N863LH –Airbus Euro copter North American registration 863 Lutheran Hospital and this is John Wooden’s helicopter.

Other heroes fly it and ride in it, but this bird belongs to the crew chief from 5AM Monday to 5AM Saturday 24 hours on call. Like his US Army service, N863LH belongs to Chopper John Wooden until the pilot/supervisor takes over and that is only until the crew chief approves the flight.

U.S. Army Specialist John Wooden flying over Fort Hood Texas

Safety is paramount. Safety is purchased with the currency minted in professionalism, obligation to duty and years of adherence to a code of conduct developed over centuries. John Wooden was a soldier mechanic who maintained eight Bell OH-58 D (I & r models) from 1993-1999 at Fort Hood, Texas and along the Korea DMZ.

According to the United States Army, a helicopter crew chief maintains inside and outside of the craft, trains air crew and ground maintenance mechanics on all aspects of motors, air frame and weapons systems. Crew Chiefs often fly and perform spot checks whenever deemed necessary. The helicopter crew chief owns the responsibility for every detail in keeping the aircraft safe and flyable.

These days, crew chief John Wooden keeps Lutheran Air III mission capable:

 Check main Rotor gear box

 Check main rotor Engine

 Check Rotor Blades

 Check Lights

 Check Tail Rotor

 Check Storage Boxes

 Check Communications

 Check Garmin GPS/Aviation

 Check all airframe components

 

By 7:30 the night crew prepares to depart. I had the pleasure of meeting Pilot Supervisor Travis Carts and Flight Nurse Supervisor Gwen Lewis. The paramedics were not available, as they were participation in joint lesson on computer laptops.

Chopper John, Flight Nurse Gwen Lewis, Pilot Supervisor Travis Cartes, Pilot Marcus the Big Swede

Gwen Lewis has been a Flight Nurse with Lutheran Air since 2014. As a Flight Nurse, Gwen Lewis has more critical care experience than her crew mate paramedic. Gwen Lewis has been an Emergency Nurse since 2003 and a Flight Nurse since 2014. Ms. Lewis holds an RN license as well degrees in Nursing. In flight, Gwen Lewis checks the patient’s vital statistics, keeps record, and administers medications as needed. A trained paramedic assists Gwen. Gwen Lewis explained,

“This is a team effort and dedicated to keeping the patient safe from lift off to hand off at the medical center. The mission is everything.”

In complete agreement, Lutheran Air III pilot Travis Cartes explained that barring such hazards as frost, low visibility due to low cloud coverage, or the always heavy Indiana fogs, “The in-flight team takes over from First responders on scene of an accident, or medical center and focuses on getting the patient to the mission care center.” A civilian helicopter pilot with thousands of hours in airtime Travis Cartes began his career in Ohio and later piloted hog hunts in Texas. Not only is Mr. Cartes an experienced pilot but also holds an Airframe and Powerplant Certification. Like Chopper John, Pilot Supervisor Travis Cartes knows every aspect to air mechanisms and communicates concerns with his Crew Chief.

The Flight Crew live like fire fighters in a barracks adjacent to the chopper hanger, which makes them comfortably at home in between the many missions. On weekend before my visit to Lutheran Air III the crews logged five flights. You can keep track of Lutheran Air III here-

https://flightaware.com/live/flight/N863LH

Growing up, we read books like Dave Dawson, Flight Commander, Captain of Ice, or other works by Robert Sidney Brown. These works valorized the individual as an extraordinary agent for change.

Chopper John Wooden, Flight Nurse Gwen Lewis and Pilot Supervisor Travis Carter are team. Each contributes a world of talent and concern to save lives. Young people need to read about the selfless heroes in our lives. Lutheran Hospital of Fort Wayne, Indiana can be mightily proud of the stewards based at Lutheran Air III, based at Starke County Airport. Lutheran Air III crew members are impressive people.

Chopper John Wooden keeps the aircraft mission ready. He is on-call 24 hours five days a week. Chopper John Keeps Them Flying. These impressive young heroes save lives with individual skills and team sensibilities, I am deathly afraid of heights, but would be proud to have these professionals take me to care over the soybeans and corn fields of Indiana, beneath Indiana’s French blue skies.

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About the author:

Born November 8, 1952 in Englewood Hospital, Chicago Illinois, Pat Hickey attended Chicago Catholic grammar and high schools, received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Loyola University in 1974, began teaching English and coaching sports at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee, IL in 1975, married Mary Cleary in 1983, received a Master of Arts in English Literature from Loyola in 1987, taught at La Lumiere School in Indiana from 1988-1994, took a position as Director of Development with Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, IN and then Leo High School in Chicago in 1996.  His wife Mary died in 1998 and Hickey returned with his three children to Chicago’s south side. From 1998 until 2019, it became obvious that Illinois and Chicago turned like Stilton cheese on a humid countertop. In that time, he wrote a couple of books and many columns for Irish American News. When the kids became independent and vital adults, he moved to Michigan City, Indiana, where he job coaches Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens in LaPorte County.  He walks to the Michigan City Lighthouse every chance he gets.