Pursue a Career as a Flight Nurse
Flight nurses provide medical care to critically ill or injured patients being transported by helicopter or airplane to an emergency medical center, or between centers. They are key members of the medical team that stabilizes and cares for the patient until they can receive more intensive treatment.
Steps to Become a Flight Nurse
Decide if this nursing specialty is right for you.
Flight nurses provide patient care in emergency situations. That means they must be good critical thinkers, able to improvise in a high-stress environment. Flight nurses are “911’s 911,” says Ashley Klepinger, a former flight nurse and now a nurse practitioner specializing in pulmonary and critical care medicine in Iowa.
Determine what education you’ll need.
You’ll have two choices: an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), a two-year program, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), a four-year program. The degree track you choose could depend on the time you want to spend in school and your finances.
Receive clinical training.
As part of your degree, you’ll get medical training in simulations labs and in a medical setting such as a hospital or clinic. The number of clinical hours you’ll need can depend on the program and state requirements but count on at least 700 hours for an associate degree and 700-800 or more for a bachelor’s degree.
Get licensed as a registered nurse (RN).
After graduation, all nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) exam to obtain a registered nurse (RN) license. Specific license requirements vary by state, but all states require the NCLEX-RN.
Gain experience in ICU/ER nursing.
Most flight nursing positions require at least three years of experience in an ICU, ER, or another critical-care setting.
Consider earning a certification.
Certification represents the experience and skills you’ve gained beyond your education, and employers often require it. The specialty certification for flight nurses is Certified Registered Flight Nurse (CFRN).
Taking into account all the different requirements you must fulfill, from nursing school to the amount of practical experience required to earn a specialty certification, it can take anywhere from seven to nine years, or even longer, to become a flight nurse.
What Does a Flight Nurse Do?
Much like ER nurses, flight nurses work alongside other medical professionals, such as paramedics, EMTs, and physicians, to care for patients in emergency situations. The difference is that these medical teams are treating patients as they are being transported by helicopter or airplane to a medical facility for further treatment.
These patients are often critically ill or injured, and the care they need may include everything from basic monitoring of vital signs to CPR. Flight nurses are essential in communicating physician instructions to team members.
The role can be stressful but fulfilling. “One of the most rewarding aspects of being a flight nurse is the ability to provide competent and advanced medicine to critically ill or injured patients,” says Klepinger.
Patients who must be flown to a medical facility are often critically ill or injured, and the care they need may include everything from basic monitoring of vital signs to CPR.
Required Education to Become a Flight Nurse
To become a flight nurse, you’ll need to be an RN, which requires an ADN or a BSN. More and more, however, employers want flight nurses with the experience and education associated with a bachelor’s degree.
ADN and BSN programs are plentiful across the United States. Programs can vary in structure, content, and cost, but all accredited programs are aimed at preparing aspiring nurses for the NCLEX-RN exam.
There are many nursing programs with online coursework, but note that you’ll still need to earn your clinical hours in person. Typically, you’ll complete your hours at a healthcare facility in your community under the guidance of a preceptor.
Online programs are great for working professionals or individuals with responsibilities such as childcare. They don’t provide the guidance or supervision you might receive in a campus classroom, so you’ll need to be highly disciplined, motivated, and committed to your education to succeed in this learning format.
What to Look for in a School
You’ll naturally want to consider the cost of a program, student-to-teacher ratio, and whether a program offers classes or clinical training opportunities that will help you pursue flight nursing. Other considerations:
Accreditation: Accreditation means professionals and experts have reviewed a program and found it to deliver the education needed for a career in a specific field. Attending an accredited nursing program is important for several reasons. Without accreditation, you won’t be able to apply for financial aid. You also won’t be able to take the NCLEX-RN exam upon graduation and obtain an RN license, which you’ll need to practice.
Three organizations accredit BSN programs: The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), and the Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA).
The ACEN and the CNEA accredit associate degree programs.
A school’s relationship with local medical facilities: A strong relationship could help you land an entry-level position at a medical facility or an affiliate when you graduate.
NCLEX-RN pass rates: Prospective students should ask about a program’s first-time pass rate for the most recent graduating class. A high rate could indicate that students have received a quality education and are poised to succeed in nursing.
After graduation from a nursing program, students must obtain their RN license before they can practice. To be licensed, all prospective nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN, which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).
After you pass the NCLEX, you’ll be ready to apply to your state board of nursing for your RN license. Passing the exam usually is only one component of obtaining your license, however.
Some state boards also require background checks, references, and school transcripts. You can check an NCSBN database to find out what your state requirements are.
Aspiring flight nurses generally need two to three years of nursing experience before they can pursue a job in that role. Any critical care nursing experience will help prepare an RN for a future in flight nursing.
Aspiring flight nurses generally need two to three years of nursing experience before they can pursue a job as a flight nurse.
Employers generally require job candidates to have experience in an acute care unit, trauma center, ICU, or ER—or a combination of these. Even these jobs can be considered specialties, so you may need to work your way into one of these positions from something similar, like medical-surgical nursing. Certification in critical care also may help.
“The number one thing employers look for in an individual who is interested in becoming a flight nurse is their ability to adapt to critical situations,” says Klepinger. “Critical thinking is imperative for the safety of the patients as well as the safety of the flight crew.”
Where You’ll Work as a Flight Nurse
Some flight nurses care for a specific kind of patient, but others treat a variety. Where you work could determine who you see.
There is one optional specialty certification for flight nurses, the Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN). But other certifications also can add to their expertise. While certification may not be required to land a position, most employers require flight nurses to earn one before the end of their first year of work.
Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN)
Who Grants It: Board Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN)
What It Is: A credential that demonstrates expertise and knowledge in flight nursing
Who It’s For: Working flight nurses
Requirements: Applicants must have a current, unrestricted RN license. It’s recommended that they also have two years of experience as a flight nurse.
Exam and Prep: This computer-based exam has 150 questions and covers the general principles of flight nursing practice, resuscitation, trauma, medical emergencies, and special populations. Candidates have 3 hours to complete the exam. The BCEN offers practice exams for $40 each.
Aspiring flight nurses may also consider pursuing:
- Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN)
- Certified Pediatric Emergency Nurse (CPEN)
- Trauma Certified Registered Nurse (TCRN)
- Critical Care Registered Nurse (CCRN)
Salary and Career Outlook
The median annual salary for all RNs, including flight nurses, is $77,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The top 10% of nurses make more than $120,250 and the bottom 10% make below $59,450.
The BLS does not break out salaries for nursing specialties, but nurses who specialize and have a bachelor’s degree can have a salary advantage over other nurses. In addition to specialty and education, salaries can also vary based on:
- Where you live
- Where you work
As you pursue your career, you’ll want to take advantage of resources that can help you advance in your field. Here are some that can provide continuing education and networking opportunities.