Dana Morris clearly didn’t know what his long-time colleague and co-pilot Todd Whaley was pulling out of a box.
It was a replica of Flagler County FireFlight, the emergency helicopter the two men had flown for thousands of hours since its arrival in the county in 2002. “The detail in that is unbelievable,” Morris said, looking at the helicopter like a boy with a new toy on Christmas morning. “I have to say,” he said, perfect.”
Morris, the Flight Operations Chief all these years, recalled the helicopter’s history, how he’d flown it at Yosemite National park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park before it sold to Flagler, and he followed it here. “So I have a lot of history with FireFlight, and this means the world to me, to have a replica of it. It’s awesome. And the detail on it is unbelievable.”
Morris was speaking this morning before the Flagler County Commission. He was being honored on the even of his retirement after 20 years flying fire missions and 741 trauma flights with patients flown to area hospitals. Commissioner Joe Mullins called it a “great but sad moment.”
The moment had its genesis in the 1998 wildfires. Whaley recalled that “massive wildfire storm,” when the county was fully evacuated, when Flagler lost 71 homes, when 165 homes were damaged, leaving behind $16 million dollars in structural damages and over $328 million in timber losses. The county had no helicopter at the time. FireFlight was on the manufacturing line, getting born. Four years later it arrived in the county, with tail number 911US. Pilots came and went until the county went back to the manufacturer to ask if someone there could help. Morris raised his hand.
“He didn’t mean to stay,” Whaley said. “He was only coming for a short term time. But the administration convinced him otherwise and asked for his help in building a program. And he built a program like no other. This aircraft quickly established itself as an invaluable asset in the firefighting arena. It made its name known throughout the region, and since its arrival, it has dropped nearly 2 million gallons of water in Flagler County and the surrounding areas.”
Morris then petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration and got FireFlight certified as an air ambulance, which helped return $3.6 million to the county in fees, according to Whaley. A night-vision camera system was also installed on Morris’s watch, enabling FireFlight to be a night eye in the sky for law enforcement. “So I know Dana is proud to say that there is no other agency that does all the things that we do,” he said. “As Airbus Helicopters describes our unit, we’re the Swiss Army knife of the industry.” He hailed Morris’s vision. “It’s my privilege to call you a colleague, mentor, and a friend,” he said, inviting Morris to speak after the two hugged.
“Of course this is the end of my flying career, probably I’ll probably be doing a little bit of flying,” Morris said. “But I started flying back in November of 1979. That was my first helicopter flight in training. And since then, it’s been 43 years of flying. And it’s been one hell of a career. I’ve been around the world a couple times. We’ve been to Burma, Papua New Guinea, Yemen, and all over the western United States, including Alaska. So it’s been a terrific, terrific career and I can’t–I’m totally totally satisfied with what I’ve done. Again, there’s so much that this helicopter has done, you know, we’ve done over 900 firefighting missions. You know, that’s a 900 hours of flying on fires. I don’t think we have any other firefighting equipment that has done 900 hours of actual firefighting, and this helicopter is 25 years old. We need to start thinking about something replacing this.”
He also introduced pilot Neil Edgerton of Volusia County, who’d also been the chief pilot there. He’s bringing nine years of air ambulance flying experience and two years of firefighting experience, “some of it in California, flying at night with night vision goggles and a snorkel to get the water on onto the fire,” Morris said.
And just like that, after commissioners praised his achievements and thanked him for his service, after nearly 6,000 flights and 4,300 flight hours, Morris’s career was all but over with Flagler. His retirement party is still ahead, and will not involve the replica, but the real thing.
Valerie Waine says
Dana Morris has been a Flagler Hero for all years served. His dedication and expertise in aviation technology gave this community fast medical care and law enforcement response. Pilots fly for many reasons, pleasure, purpose and absolute dedication to a need. Enjoy the benefits of retirement after so many years of service to others, Dana.