How to Become a Flight Nurse

If you want a nursing role that takes you outside the typical clinical setting, you might be interested in being a flight nurse. As for how to become a flight nurse, there are several paths you could take. 

Becoming a flight nurse could require some of these common steps: 

  1. Become a registered nurse (RN). 
  2. Gain experience in emergency medicine by working in an emergency department, ICU or trauma unit. 
  3. Consider seeking certification as a flight nurse.

What Is a Flight Nurse?

A flight nurse is a registered nurse who transports patients to a medical facility on a helicopter or plane. Patients may be critically injured or severely ill. The nurse may be transporting them from the scene of an accident to an emergency room or from one medical facility to another.

A flight nurse is a specialized kind of critical care nurse and needs experience in emergency medicine. Because their job involves transporting patients, flight nurses are sometimes called transport nurses. 

Steps to Become a Flight Nurse

There are many ways to meet the qualifications for a flight nurse job. Here are some common ways to become a flight nurse.

  1. Become a Registered Nurse

The first step to becoming a flight nurse is to become a registered nurse, which requires taking nursing courses from an accredited program and passing a licensing exam. You may complete an associate degree program, a nursing diploma program or a bachelor’s degree in nursing. After finishing your coursework, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Once you pass, you receive the “RN” credential. Check with your state for other licensing requirements.

While associate and diploma programs may qualify you to sit for the NCLEX-RN, many employers (including hospitals) may require a bachelor’s degree. If you earn an associate degree or diploma first, you may complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing later through an RN-to-BSN program. You may also find a program that allows you to complete both a bachelor’s and master’s in nursing. 

  1. Gain Experience in ICU/ED/Trauma

Because a flight nurse works with patients who need critical care, it’s beneficial to have at least one year of experience working with acute care or emergency patients to become a flight nurse. After becoming a registered nurse, look for work in an emergency department, trauma unit or intensive care unit to gain the experience you need to work as a flight nurse. Most employers require nurses to have at least three to five years of critical care or emergency experience before hiring them as flight nurses. It’s also a good idea to know something about aviation and be comfortable traveling in a plane if you plan to become a flight nurse.

  1. Consider Completing Certification of Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN) or Other Required Certifications

Once you’ve gained experience in a critical care setting, the next step to becoming a flight nurse is to obtain certification. The Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) offers a Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN) credential. You must hold a current, unrestricted registered nurse license in the United States, U.S. territory or Canada to take the exam. The organization recommends completing two years of experience in your specialty before taking the exam, but experience isn’t mandatory.

Not every employer requires you to hold a CFRN, but certification can help you prove your qualifications. Some employers may accept applicants who aren’t certified but require them to gain certification to maintain employment as a flight nurse.

What Does a Flight Nurse Do?

You may be wondering, what does a flight nurse do? The responsibilities of a flight nurse may vary from day to day, depending on the medical service provider they work for. Some organizations that employ flight nurses include hospitals, aviation providers and law enforcement, for services such as search-and-rescue operations. 

Flight nurses may provide all levels of care, from monitoring non-emergency patients being transferred to a different facility to providing advanced life support for patients from an accident scene. Some transport teams specialize in specific types of patients, such as high-risk newborns or cardiothoracic patients who are dependent on devices to assist their hearts. 

Flight nurses collaborate with on-ground physicians or emergency responders on-scene. They create a plan of care based on information from on-ground personnel. Once the patient is present, the flight nurse assesses the patient’s condition and packages the patient for comfort during transport. The nurse may explain the process and try to calm the patient before the flight takes off, monitor the patient and respond to changes in condition during the flight and communicate with the receiving facility to ensure the medical team taking the patient gets all the information necessary. The flight nurse must document all relevant information.

Personal Traits and Skills of a Flight Nurse 

Flight nurses often care for patients with serious illnesses or injuries. Personal traits of a flight nurse could include the ability to remain calm in a stressful or hectic atmosphere, focus on the patient and react quickly if the patient’s condition changes. It’s beneficial for flight nurses to be skilled communicators who have the ability to convey the patient’s condition and history to the receiving facility and reassure patients and their families during the flight.

Flight nurses work in confined spaces, and they need to be able to utilize more compact medical equipment than what’s found in an emergency room. 

Flight Nurse Associations

If you’re interested in this career, you might benefit from joining one of the various flight nurses associations that provide career resources and networking opportunities. 

ASTNA—Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association, also known as National Flight Nurses Association—is a 2,500-member organization that works to advance the practice of flight nursing. It provides training courses for flight nurses, publishes the Air Medical Journal, and offers networking opportunities, scholarships and webinars. 

Salary and Career Outlook for Flight Nurses

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track flight nurse salaries. However, the BLS does report that the median annual wage for registered nurses was $77,600 as of May 2021. Since becoming a flight nurse may require you to become an RN first, this can be a salary measurement to consider. If you become a nurse practitioner, you may earn a higher salary. The BLS shows that nurse practitioners earned a median salary of $120,680 in May 2021. Additionally, the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) reports that nurses with emergency certification earn an average of about $1,400 more annually (PDF, 607 KB) than nurses without certification. 

The career outlook for registered nurses is good, with the number of jobs for registered nurses expected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030

Flight Nurse FAQs

You may have questions about becoming a flight nurse. Here are the answers to some common questions about this career.

What are the requirements to become a flight nurse?

The most important requirement to becoming a flight nurse is being a registered nurse. Working as an RN will allow you to gain the three to five years’ experience in critical care typically required for flight nurses. To become an RN, you must complete an accredited nursing education program and pass a national licensing exam. In addition, your state may have other requirements.

It could also be beneficial for a flight nurse to have experience in a critical care or emergency nursing setting, such as an ICU or emergency room.

How long does it take to become a flight nurse?

You need to become a registered nurse and get emergency or critical care experience before becoming a flight nurse. Becoming a registered nurse can take about four years if you pursue a bachelor’s degree. After that, you’ll need three to five years of hands-on experience. So, becoming a flight nurse may take about seven to nine years, depending on your educational background.

What are the differences between flight nurses and transport nurses?

Flight nurse and transport nurse are different names for the same job. A flight nurse works on a plane or helicopter while transporting patients to a medical facility, so either term is accurate. However, the “flight nurse” title is used more frequently.

Do I need a master’s in nursing to become a flight nurse?

You don’t need a master’s in nursing to become a flight nurse. However, having an advanced degree may open the door to more job opportunities than you’d qualify for with a bachelor’s degree. Nurses with a master’s degree also tend to earn higher salaries than nurses with an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree.

How much does a flight nurse make?

As mentioned above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t report data specifically on flight nurses. However, it does report that registered nurses earned a median annual salary of $77,600 as of May 2021. Nurse practitioners, who have at least a master’s degree, earned a median salary of $120,680 in May 2021.

Last updated in June 2022