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Mercy Flight air fleet, which started with a prayer, adds 3 new helicopters

It's not every day someone buys three new helicopters, but that is exactly how Douglas Baker spent Thursday.

Baker is the founding president of Mercy Flight, and the purchase of the Bell 429 helicopters will significantly upgrade the air ambulance fleet and its ability to provide emergency air medical services, he said.

"It's a very big deal for us," Baker said. "We’re a tiny non-profit organization in Western New York, and it's been quite a haul in 36 years. It was an emotional day."

The purchase was made possible through a combined $23 million long-term lending effort from M&T Bank and the Rural Development Department of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The 20-year joint loans will allow Mercy Flight to replace four aging 1980 model BK-117 helicopters.

"This funding builds on the USDA’s continued investment and commitment in rural communities throughout New York," said Sandra Snyder, rural development loan technician with the USDA.

The USDA guarantees 90 percent of the $23 million, Baker said. Currently, one aircraft is based in Batavia. The new helicopters will be positioned in Olean, Springville and Niagara Falls.

In 2010, Mercy Flight collaborated with the USDA and M&T Bank for joint loans for the organization’s first Bell 429 helicopter.

"The service was remarkable," Baker said. "Bell sends mechanics in sometimes the same afternoon, and that's important."

Baker plans to sell off the old aircraft, each with an estimated 15,000 flight hours logged.

"They might be sold in Brazil, Europe. Usually it's someone not associated with emergency medical care," he said. "They were so costly to maintain. We discovered we could buy the three new ones, and it would cost us the same as to maintain the four old ones. That's what convinced us to buy them."

Mercy Flight's current fleet consists of five helicopters, 20 ambulances and six paramedic SUVs. Long-distance air transports are conducted using a Learjet 31. Mercy Flight completed more than 27,000 patient missions since 1981 including on-site emergencies and hospital transfers.

The new aircraft will be built in Montreal, Baker said. The medical equipment will be installed in Pittsburgh. The helicopters should be completed and delivered ready for emergency medical service operations in late spring 2018.

Baker credited his inspirational "buddy" with commandeering his career in emergency care service. Sister Sheila Marie was the CEO at Mercy Hospital when Baker met her in 1967. At the time, Baker had just taken over the hospital's ambulance service.

"We've been buddies ever since," he said.

When Baker announced the $23 million purchase Thursday, Sister Sheila Marie was in the audience.

"I almost started crying at the podium," he said. "Sister Sheila Marie looked at me, and I maintained control. When we purchased the first Bell helicopter, she told me not to worry about paying the loan back. 'I'll pray on it,' she said.

"You would not believe what we have accomplished on her prayers,"  Baker said.

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