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His air ambulance business in Tampa takes him around the world, again and again

techsm5

TAMPA — Two days after Christmas, Mike Honeycutt was heading to his Westshore offices when he got the call: An American tourist had a heart attack in Jamaica and needed to go home.

So Honeycutt, CEO of air ambulance and medical evacuation company Jet ICU and a pilot himself, flew with his medical team to bring the man back – all in all, a fairly typical Tuesday.

Honeycutt, 53, is from a small town in North Carolina where planes dusted crops and military planes from the nearby base flew overhead. He’s married to Becky, lives in Palm Harbor, just became a grandfather and, oh yeah, has been around the world several times. He prefers a pilot’s seat to an office chair.

The family business he runs with his father, Bill, has 7 planes and 10 pilots with dozens of medical, transportation, communications and administrative employees. Down the hall in the office, her father runs the side of the company that handles travel insurance for missionaries.

When you’ve seen most of the Seven Wonders, there are plenty of stories — like the time during the height of the pandemic when an island nation was reluctant to let a cruise ship passenger with COVID disembark there in order to board aboard a Jet ICU plane back to the United States “We ended up having to swap a ventilator,” Honeycutt said, to make it happen.

A conversation with Mike Honeycutt. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you know you wanted to fly?

In high school, my senior year. I was trying to decide what to do. My dad’s best friend grew up as a dust collector and (became an airline pilot). He told me about his job, worked 15 days a month, traveled all over the world.

Then I got out and took my first introductory flight, and I was hooked. I wanted to see the world.

How has the Jet ICU business evolved?

I flew cargo for a while. This led me to drive three of the NASCAR teams.

I started flying for a small air ambulance… They were going anywhere in the world at any time. Loved it, being from a small town. In six months, I had been on four, maybe five continents. You can see things. But this is by no means a vacation.

I saw the Great Wall from the air. It’s quite nice.

I was hired by a small airline, Midway, and I missed what I was doing. A lot of people like the program, and for me, after getting a call, packing your bags, you’re going to Berlin, that was exciting. I missed it.

(After 911, he took early leave and returned to the air ambulance company. After it closed, he decided in 2003 to start his own.)

There’s something to be said for being young and ambitious. I have a friend in the insurance industry who says, “It’s not impossible, it just takes longer.”

Two days after Christmas, you were on your way to Jamaica and back. Is this last-minute scramble pretty typical?

This is our specialty, all over the world, what we call long-distance medical transport. Ninety percent of our trips are urgent like that. We don’t have a lot of planning involved. It’s the nature of business.

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The doctors (members of the team) will tell me: time is tissue.

Did the patient in Jamaica survive?

He did. They were optimistic that he would make a good recovery.

What is the bulk of the activity – sick or injured passengers on cruise ships? Cases like the Florida boy with rare brain-eating amoeba you flew to chicago for treatment? Tourists abroad?

We work a lot with Canadians (who are flying home for universal health care.) We work a lot with cruise lines…all kinds of medical emergencies. We work a lot with Johns Hopkins (All Children’s Hospital) with the transport of premature babies. We have a lot of kids and everything.

On a trip outside of Europe we had a 94 year old gentleman. One of my nurses asked him, “Well, do you think you’re going to stop traveling now? He said, “What, I’ll sit on my porch and wait to die?”

It opened my eyes, changed my life. He is right.

Mike Honeycutt inside one of his Jet ICU planes.
Mike Honeycutt inside one of his Jet ICU planes.
[ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Do you track patients after your game is over?

We do. We get a lot of feedback (cards, notes and in a recent case a photo of a recovering boy in a hospital bed after an incident while snorkeling with his family in the Turks and Caicos Islands .) Our nurses develop a relationship with the patients and fellow travelers.

(After Honeycutt’s dad heard about twin babies born prematurely in Utah who were due to fly home to St. Petersburg, Jet ICU flew them.) Dad’s been to two birthday parties (since). We stayed close to them.

It’s a very rewarding business.

News reports have reported instances in which Jet ICU transportation has been provided free of charge – for example, when the family of a University of South Florida student injured in car accident while visiting Cuba in 2015 could not afford to fly home. (More recently, the company provided discounted transportation for a A 12-year-old girl who was the sole survivor when her family was in a head-on crash while vacationing in Mexico in June.)

You know, we are blessed. When we feel we need to step in, we do. Tampa is my little town now. You help your neighbors.

Talk about a matter close to your heart.

There are so many.

There was a girl I flew with in 1998. She was 18, terminally ill. She had bone marrow cancer. They brought her from Oslo for a new treatment they were trying. It didn’t work for her, so we took her home. (On this flight, they had to divert, land, and put her through customs.) She was in a lot of pain.

So we took him out. I said “I’m so sorry we had to stop.” She said “No – thank you. You’re taking me home so I can die with my family.

How many miles do you think you have traveled?

I have circumnavigated the globe three times heading east. West twice. From a pilot’s perspective, not many people do that. I have been blessed.

So more miles than I remember.

It’s a beautiful day when you see the sun rise and set the same day at 41,000 feet.

Is flying still fun?

He is. They say if you’re doing something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

techsm5

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