Late in the night of Jan. 10, 2005, something happened to Jonathan Godfrey that he will never forget. Godfrey, a medical flight nurse, was lying eight feet below the surface of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., after the LifeEvac 2 medical helicopter in which he was riding crashed. It took first responders 45 minutes before they knew what happened. And while Godfrey was rescued, pilot Joe Schaffer and paramedic Nikki Kielar died.
As one of an estimated 700 survivors of air medical crashes and among the few sole survivors, Godfrey immediately knew he needed to tell the world what he went through. Within 30 days, he created his first PowerPoint and visited an air medical base. He toured the country for the next decade, giving his Max Impact: A Story of Survival presentation to whoever would listen.
Then in 2015, a fellow helicopter crash survivor named Michael Eccard connected him with MJ Brickey, a then-Oklahoma newspaper reporter investigating five fatal helicopter crashes in that state in five years. They ended up co-writing a 2017 book named the same as his presentation and two years later got married. They recently relocated to Lantana to be near family and further his cause.
The self-published book has sold more than 15,000 copies and will eventually lead to an updated edition after leaving out key elements. Godfrey and Brickey also are in pre-production negotiations for his story to become a movie. Everything they do is intended to honor the memory of Schaffer and Kielar.
“There’s nothing good about it, but if someone is going to die, you want it to count,” Brickey said. “He could have made money off their tragedy, but he didn’t, and he’s held onto that. That’s why the movie isn’t out already, as we have tried to carefully carry this information as far as we can go.”
While the physical scars of 11 broken bones eventually healed, the mental ones lingered for years. A combination of PTSD and survivor’s guilt (Kielar switched seats with Godfrey before departing after dropping off their patient at an area hospital), plus a divorce played havoc with his mind.
“I needed to get my head back on straight,” he said, recalling the professional help he received.
His story has helped change the medivac transportation industry forever. Godfrey said the design of medical helicopters and prevention and seat belt equipment have improved substantially. The crash helped change safety and survivability equipment, including night-vision goggles and altimeters, and played a role in all commercial aircraft featuring two pieces of equipment to track them from start to finish.
Still, Godfrey wanted to do more. In 2020, he launched By the Bay LLC, a company with the goal to open 10 nationwide substance abuse and mental health recovery and renewal centers. With nearly all of Godfrey’s family – including oldest daughter and Dallas resident, Hannah – living in his native Texas, and Brickey still with family in southeast Oklahoma, they decided to move to the Metroplex and launch their first center early next year in Aurora just west of Roanoke. Their Brady Bunch-like blended family also includes his children Noah and Logan in Ohio and her four children, including three who live with them in Lantana.
Last year, Godfrey left a job as a critical-care transport nurse and safety coordinator at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., to concentrate on being a traveling bedside COVID ICU nurse first based out east, then with Texas Health, a job he left in mid-August.
“Being a male in his 50s and walking into the COVID ICU was terrifying, but I felt compelled to do it,” he said. “The other thing, I knew I couldn’t build By the Bay on this nursing income any longer. So the ICU job provided me with the funds to decide what’s the location to be able to start this and that ultimately landed here.”
In addition to his speaking career and By the Bay, Godfrey is a working partner for Protean LLC, which created the LZ Control visual database of places where helicopters and drones can land. He also has served as Vision Zero Chairman for six years and as project manager for the National EMS Memorial Service. He reviews content for the Air Medical Journal and proposes safety improvements to CAMTS that have become a part of the organization’s standards for accreditation. He is scheduled to return to in-person speaking in early November at the Air Medical Transport Conference in Fort Worth.
“I’m ready for the next chapter,” he said. “There are some other exciting things we are working on right now.”
photos courtesy of MJ Brickey