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Think of him as an angel of mercy

Stan Snopkowski of Amherst has helped save thousands of people since 1990, and most of them never even saw him.

Snopkowski, 54, is senior pilot for Mercy Flight. A flying fan since 11, he got his start flying Medevac for the Army in Vietnam. Now he puts in 12-hour days at the air ambulance's Buffalo Airport base. Mercy Flight marks its 25th year of service this year.

Who goes on a Mercy Flight?

The pilot, the paramedic and the nurse. The paramedic is a little higher skill level than you'd normally get in a ground ambulance, because they have additional training to push medications, intubate the patient, to do critical care -- they have to deal with a wide spectrum of patients, anything from babies to adults.

What area do you cover?

We cover predominantly within 30 miles of the Buffalo area. That would be on-scenes, such as motor vehicle accidents, falls down into gorges, ATV accidents, snowmobile accidents, skiing accidents. The nice thing about having bases in Batavia and Olean is that if we're out and another call comes in, they can come out this way to cover. It's coverage 24 hours a day through all eight counties of Western New York.

You don't get involved in the medical aspect of it?

I don't, and not only that, the pilot is not told anything about the patient if he has to make a weather decision. I'm just asked, "Can you go from here to there?" because you don't want to get into the mind-set, "I have to go save that person." You don't want to push the limits. I learned early in my career that it's a poor trade to trade three or four people for one.

You have to be able to make that decision, even after you get the patient on board. If the weather deteriorates or conditions are getting to the point where you feel uncomfortable, you land the aircraft and the patient can go by ground. No one's ever going to yell at you for doing that.

What's the strangest place you ever landed?

We were coming up from Olean one year in July, bringing a baby up, and there was a line of thunderstorms, and we hit right around the Arcade-Yorkshire area and a lightning bolt came down and all I saw was white in front of me. So we looked over toward Springville and Springville was clear, but then we headed that way and that closed off, so the Pizza Hut right there at [Route] 16 and 39 -- we landed in that parking lot. We had called for the local volunteer fire company ambulance, they got the patient, and the team went on up toward East Aurora, and my medic and I, we went in and had a pizza. We waited for everything to clear, and then we flew back.

But we've landed on the Thruway, I've been down in Zoar Valley gorge, the Niagara Gorge.

Does anybody ever come back to thank you?

We have had people come back. A lot of them don't remember, and they come back to look at the helicopter and see what they were in. That's always a good feeling.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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