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How to Become a Flight Nurse

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC
Updated January 11, 2023
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Flight nurses provide patient care in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, often in high-pressure situations. Learn more about this exciting nursing specialty.
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Ever wondered how to become a flight nurse, or what these nurses do? Flight nurses provide patient care in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, often in high-pressure situations.

Their patients vary from victims of traumatic wilderness accidents (medical evacuations/life flights) to those needing safe transportation between medical facilities (medical transport).

Becoming a flight nurse might be right for you if adrenaline, trauma, critical thinking, critical care nursing, physical stamina, and rapid response are an attractive job description.

In this guide, we break down what a flight nurse is, the details of the job, how to become a flight nurse, including education, licensure, and certification.

What Is a Flight Nurse?

Flight nurses respond to a variety of situations where their high-level training, experience, and specialized clinical knowledge are key. They provide patient care in rotor aircraft (helicopters) or fixed-wing aircraft (jet or propeller planes). Flight nurses may work out of:

  • Independent medical transport companies
  • Fire departments
  • Search and rescue organizations
  • Hospitals and trauma centers
  • Federal, tribal, municipal, or local government
  • U.S. military or military reserves

Flight nurses work on flight teams often composed of the flight nurse, a paramedic, and a pilot.

Since shifts can last up to several days in certain settings, flight companies often provide a base of operations with a fully stocked kitchen, bedrooms or dormitories, and recreation facilities.

A flight nurse’s duties can include:

  • Evaluation of critically ill or injured patients
  • Stabilization of medical transport patients
  • Administration of medications, IVs, and blood products
  • First aid
  • Constant evaluation of patient status
  • Timely response to changes in patient condition
  • Close communication with other members of the flight team and base of operations
  • Maintenance of clinical competencies
  • Documentation of patient condition and all provided interventions
  • Pre-mission supply checks and restocking as needed
  • Routine maintenance and quality control checks of equipment

Steps to Becoming a Flight Nurse

To specialize as a flight nurse, learners should first obtain their registered nursing licensure. This requires attending a nursing degree program.

Becoming a flight nurse means gaining critical care and emergency nursing experience. Certification as a flight nurse can make a nurse more marketable, although certification is not always mandatory.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN degree

    Earning an ADN or BSN degree is an important step towards becoming a flight nurse. A traditional BSN program consists of general education courses (e.g.: English, math), nursing prerequisites (e.g.: microbiology, anatomy and physiology), and several years of both classroom education and clinical training. Earning this degree often takes four years.A bridge program (RN-to-BSN) is for associate-level nurses wanting to advance their education and career mobility. These programs take anywhere from 9-24 months. Accelerated BSN programs are meant for people with a bachelors degree in a non-nursing field who wish to earn a BSN. These programs are ‌11-18 months long.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    Every ADN or BSN student wishing to become a licensed nurse must pass the NCLEX-RN. Developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is the last step before a nursing license. Most recent graduates take the test one month after graduation.Among all nursing school graduates sitting for the NCLEX, about 89.11% passed the RN exam in 2019.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Intensive Care, Emergency, or Trauma Nursing

    Those seeking employment as a flight nurse need significant clinical experience — around 3-5 years — in intensive care, emergency nursing, or trauma.New RNs may find a position in one of these clinical areas directly out of school, but many will first need to work in medical-surgical, telemetry, step-down, or other units before being eligible to work in the ED, ICU, or trauma settings.

    Other skills and experience recommended for flight nursing include neonatal resuscitation, pediatric advanced life support, advanced cardiac life support, and pre-hospital trauma life support.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Flight Registered Nurse

    While every employer may not require certification to consider a nurse for a position, flight nurses can validate their knowledge and experience by earning a specialty certification.In order to sit for the CFRN exam, a candidate need an unrestricted nursing license in the United States, Canada, or any U.S. territory. The Board of Certification in Emergency Nursing (BCEN) is the only source for flight nurse certification. Nurses can take the exam from home using secure proctoring offered by the BCEN.

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Flight Nurse Education

There are several educational routes to becoming a flight nurse, and each individual must choose the path that makes the most personal, professional, and financial sense for them.

ADN Degree

In terms of how to become a flight nurse, the ADN is the shortest degree pathway and is the minimum eligibility for the NCLEX and RN licensure. The ADN is for the person who would like to get through school with a college degree and join the nursing workforce as quickly as possible.

Many hospitals focus on only hiring nurses with a BSN. If becoming a flight nurse is the goal, an ADN may find it difficult to gain the hospital experience necessary to be eligible to apply for flight nurse positions.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    GED certificate or high school diploma; GPA of 2.0 or higher; completion of high school math, biology, chemistry, English, world languages, and humanities; ACT scores (18 in English, 19 in math) and SAT scores (450 in English, 460 in math); completed application and transcripts.

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Introduction to the nursing profession; professionalism in nursing; health assessment; microbiology and immunology; medical-surgical nursing; pediatric nursing; maternal-newborn nursing.

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    2 years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Physical assessment; therapeutic and professional communication; critical thinking; organization; many hands-on nursing skills.

BSN Degree

For those seeking positions in acute care hospitals, the BSN degree is the most commonly held nursing degree. Gaining the required trauma, ICU, or emergency department experience before seeking employment as a flight nurse will be easier with a BSN.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; high school and/or college transcripts; resume or CV; SAT or ACT scores; and some schools may require prior completion of microbiology, anatomy and physiology, statistics, and chemistry.

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Anatomy and physiology; community health nursing; pharmacology; leadership and management; nursing informatics; research and statistics; pathophysiology; psychology; clinical and lab components.

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    4 years on average

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Physical assessment; therapeutic and professional communication; critical thinking; organization; many hands-on nursing skills; leadership and management; evaluation of scientific research.

Flight Nurse Licensure and Certification

Becoming a flight nurse requires RN licensure. Maintaining RN licensure involves completing a certain number of continuing education units. Individual state boards of nursing determine how many units.

The certified flight registered nurse (CFRN) designation can make a flight nurse more competitive in the job market, although it is optional (unless an employer requires candidates’ certification).

Certification eligibility requirements include an unrestricted nursing license in the United States, Canada, or any U.S. territory. The Board of Certification in Emergency Nursing (BCEN) —the only source for flight nurse certification —recommends two years of experience in a specialty area before taking a certification exam.

Working as a Flight Nurse

When searching for a flight nurse job, a candidate should consider the job market and the commonalities among job postings. If the nurse meets most of these, they will need a well-written resume (and accompanying cover letter) that details their experience, education, knowledge, and expertise.Networking with others in the flight nursing field both online (e.g.: LinkedIn) and in-person can help aspiring flight nurses make connections. While job postings are an excellent source of opportunities, professional relationships can also lead to employment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not report specific flight nurse salary or job outlook data, however the BLS projects 9% job growth (as fast as average) for RNs overall between 2020 and 2030. The BLS reports the 2021 median salary for RNs nationwide as $77,600 per year and $37.31 per hour.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Flight Nurse

question-mark-circleHow long does it take to become a flight nurse?

It can take 5-7 years to become a flight nurse, including nursing school and gaining appropriate clinical experience.

question-mark-circleWhat are the requirements to become a flight nurse?

Becoming a flight nurse is a process that requires attending an ADN or BSN degree program, becoming a licensed nurse, earning experience in specific clinical areas like critical care, trauma, and emergency nursing, and possibly seeking certification in flight nursing, although certification is not always mandatory for all flight nursing jobs.

question-mark-circleHow hard is it to become a flight nurse?

Becoming a flight nurse takes 5-7 years. It also requires dedication to learning and practicing high-level nursing skills in critical care, resuscitation, trauma nursing, emergency nursing, etc. Flight nurses perform the same tasks as emergency, trauma, or critical care nurses, but they do their job in cramped spaces under very high pressure and with fewer resources.

question-mark-circleDo flight nurses get paid well?

Salary.com reports the median flight nurse salary as $89,649 per year, with the typical range between $79,560 and $100,670.

Date last reviewed: June 15, 2022

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