How to Become a Flight Nurse

Meg Lambrych, RN-BC
Updated May 24, 2024
Edited by
To become a flight nurse, you must first become a registered nurse and have years of experience in critical care and emergency nursing.
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Flight nurse walking outsideCredit: FatCamera / E+ / Getty Images

Flight nursing is one of the most high-octane, independent, and challenging roles in the field. These registered nurses (RNs) provide emergency patient care in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, often solo or in a team of two.

If you love adrenaline, critical care, and emergency nursing, and want a high level of responsibility, a career in flight nursing may be for you. This guide breaks down what a flight nurse is and how to become one, including education, licensure, and certification.

How Long to Become

At least 6 years

Degree (Preferred)


Certification (Optional)

Certified Flight Registered Nurse

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What Is a Flight Nurse?

Flight nurses respond to medical emergencies and patient transport requests, where their high-level training, experience, and specialized clinical knowledge are key. Their patients include trauma and wilderness accident victims (medical evacuations/life flights) and critical care patients needing safe transportation between medical facilities (medical transport).

They provide patient care in rotor aircraft (helicopters) or fixed-wing aircraft (jet or propeller planes), and they work in a variety of settings, including:

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

Flight nurses work on flight teams often composed of the flight nurse, a paramedic, and a pilot, and their duties can include:

  • Evacuating, evaluating, stabilizing, and transporting patients
  • Conducting and assisting with intubation and airway management
  • Independent surgical interventions, including chest tube placement
  • Independent administration of medications, blood and blood products, more
  • Close communication with other flight team members and base of operations
  • Documentation of patient condition and all provided interventions
  • Pre-mission supply checks and restocking as needed
  • Continuing education and skills acquisition

Steps to Becoming a Flight Nurse

To specialize as a flight nurse, you must first obtain your registered nursing licensure, which requires completing a nursing degree program. Becoming a flight nurse also requires critical care or emergency nursing experience — ideally both.

Exact degree requirements vary. Still, most flight nursing positions strongly prefer candidates with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.

  1. 1

    Earn a Nursing Degree

    Earning a nursing degree is the first step to becoming a flight nurse, and most companies require a BSN degree. 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 classroom and clinical training.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    Every nursing 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 receiving a nursing license. Most recent graduates take the test one month after graduation.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Critical Care, Emergency, or Trauma Nursing

    Those seeking employment as flight nurses need significant clinical experience — 3-5 years or even more — in an intensive care unit, emergency room, or similar setting. New RNs may find a position in one of these clinical areas directly out of school, while others will first need to work in other units.

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

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Registered Nurse

    Certifications in critical care or emergency nursing, such as the critical care RN (CCRN) or certified emergency nursing (CEN), are often required to secure a position as a flight nurse. Other certifications, such as the certified flight registered nurse (CFRN), are expected to be achieved in the first year or two of employment.

Flight Nurse Education

BSN Degree

While requirements can vary based on employer, the BSN is the most commonly held nursing degree for those seeking positions in acute care hospitals — or as a flight nurse. gaining the required trauma, intensive care unit (ICU), or emergency experience will be much easier with a BSN vs. an associate degree in nursing

  • Admission Requirements: High school diploma or GED certificate; high school and/or college transcripts; resume or CV; SAT or ACT scores. Some schools may require prior completion of microbiology, anatomy and physiology, statistics, and chemistry coursework.
  • Program Curriculum: Anatomy and physiology; community health nursing; pharmacology; leadership and management; nursing informatics; research and statistics; pathophysiology; psychology; clinical and lab components.
  • Time to Complete: Four years for a traditional BSN program, shorter timelines for an RN-to-BSN or accelerated BSN programs.
  • 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, and maintaining it involves completing continuing education units and paying a fee. Individual state boards of nursing all have their own specific requirements.

Most flight companies require nursing certifications, such as the CCRN from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses or certified emergency nurse (CEN) from the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN). After working as a flight nurse for some time, most companies also require the certified flight registered nurse (CFRN) credential from the BCEN.

These national certification exams are challenging and can only be taken after working in critical care or emergency nursing for a minimum period, typically two years. That’s because they are meant to show mastery of these very complex, challenging nursing fields..

Working as a Flight Nurse

Most large university hospital systems have their own helicopter-based medical transport teams that bring patients to and from local hospitals. These teams usually recruit from their ICUs. The easiest way to break into flight nursing is to join your hospital’s critical care transport team after working in their ICU for a few years.

If your hospital doesn’t have a transport team, or you want to work in a stand-alone flight facility, you’ll need to acquire the required skills and experience, craft a resume and cover letter, and network with those in the field to secure a position.

It takes many years to fully develop all the skills and knowledge required to be a flight nurse. You will also attend conferences and educational opportunities to expand your knowledge and abilities throughout your career.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Flight Nurse

If you attend a traditional four-year BSN program, it takes at least six years to become a flight nurse, including nursing school and gaining appropriate clinical experience. However, most flight nurses work as RNs for much longer than that before transitioning to flight.

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