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Pilot in medical copter crash was a week away from retiring

Emergency personnel investigate scene medical helicopter crash Tuesday Dec. 11 2012 Rochelle Ill. about 70 miles west Chicago. Rockford Memorial

Emergency personnel investigate the scene of a medical helicopter crash Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, in Rochelle, Ill., about 70 miles west of Chicago. Rockford Memorial Hospital officials say the pilot and two nurses were killed in the Monday night crash while traveling between two northern Illinois hospitals. No patients were aboard the helicopter that was flying to pick up a patient at a Mendota hospital. (AP Photo/Rockford Register Star, Scott Morgan) MANDATORY CREDIT

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Updated: January 13, 2013 6:17AM

A veteran pilot who was a week from retirement and two flight nurses died Monday night when their medical helicopter crashed in rural Lee County after turning back from a rescue mission because of the weather, authorities said.

The helicopter plunged into a cornfield near Rochelle just minutes after pilot Andy Olesen radioed that he had “encountered weather” and was returning to Rockford Memorial Hospital, authorities said.

Olesen, 65, Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Army helicopter pilot, had planned to retire next Wednesday after a lifetime of flying, a relative said Tuesday.

“He knew there were risks. But every time he went up, he knew he could save someone’s life,” said Dick Medearis, a family member who was among those gathered at Olesen’s Rockford home to mourn.

Also killed in the crash were critical care nurses Karen Hollis, 48, and Jim Dillow, 40. Both had worked in the Rockford hospital’s regional emergency acute care transport program for more than 10 years, hospital officials said.

The REACT program ferries critically ill and injured patients from community hospitals to Rockford Memorial for treatment and had operated since 1987 “without an incident or an accident,” said Dr. Dennis Uehara, chairman of emergency medicine.

On Monday, the MBBK 117 helicopter was heading for Mendota Community Hospital in LaSalle County to pick up a critically ill patient there, authorities said.

During the outbound flight, Olesen radioed that the helicopter had “encountered weather” and was turning around, Uehara said.

About 10 minutes later, the ground dispatcher tried to contact the helicopter but received no answer, Uehara said. A short time later, the hospital received reports that the helicopter had crashed near Rochelle.

“It’s an enormous tragedy,” said Gary Kaatz, president and CEO of Rockford Health Systems. “To have them lost on a mission when they were going to help someone adds to our pain.”

There was light snow falling in the Rochelle area when the crash occurred, with winds of about 7 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Visibility was about seven miles, the weather service said.

Diverting flights because of weather conditions is “not unusual,” said Ron Meadors, REACT program director.

“It’s just part of air operations,” Meadors said.

The helicopter, which could carry up to six people, was the program’s only aircraft and had been used since 1987, Meadors said.

But it has been continuously updated to keep its electronics, engines and equipment up to date, he said.

After the crash, the Mendota patient was brought to Rockford Memorial by ambulance, but hospital officials wouldn’t release any other details.

Olesen had flown for the REACT program for about five years as an employee of Denver-based Air Methods, which operates the helicopter under contract to Rockford Memorial.

He previously had flown for another hospital medical program and had served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot for 23 years, including a nine- month tour of duty in Vietnam, Medearis said.

Olesen, who with his wife, Pat, had two grown children and three grandchildren, had talking about retiring for several years.

But he had put it off because he loved his job, Medearis said.

“I was trying to get him to retire for a while,” Medearis said. “He’d say, ‘I love to fly, I love what I’m doing.’ ”

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