His Tampa Air Ambulance business has taken him around the world time and time again

TAMPA — Two days after Christmas, Mike Honeycutt was heading to his West Coast office when he received a call: An American tourist had suffered a heart attack in Jamaica and needed to go home.

So Honeycutt, the CEO and pilot of the air ambulance and medical evacuation company Jet ICU, was on the plane with his medical team to bring the man back — all in all, it was a fairly typical Tuesday.

Honeycutt, 53, hails from the small North Carolina town where planes spray crops and military jets fly overhead from nearby bases. He’s married to Becky, lives in Palm Harbor, has just become a grandfather, and oh yes, he’s circled the globe several times. He prefers the pilot seat to the office chair.

The family business he runs with his father, Bill, has seven aircraft and 10 pilots, as well as dozens of medical, transportation, communications and administrative staff. Down the hall in his office, his father ran a company that managed missionary travel insurance.

When you’ve seen most of the Seven Wonders, there are plenty of stories — like an island nation’s reluctance to disembark a COVID-stricken cruise ship passenger in order to board a Jet at the height of the pandemic. The ICU plane returned to the U.S. “We ended up having to switch to a ventilator,” Honeycutt said, to make that happen.

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

How early did you know you wanted to fly?

In high school, my senior year. I’m trying to decide what to do. My dad’s best friend grew up a crop duster and later an airline pilot. He told me about his job, working 15 days a month, traveling the world.

Then I went out and did my first introductory flight and I was hooked. I want to see the world.

How has the Jet ICU business evolved?

I flew cargo for a while. This has me flying around with three NASCAR teams.

I started flying for small air ambulance planes…they fly anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. I love it, coming from a small town. In six months, I’ve been to four, maybe five, continents. You will see something. But it’s not a holiday by any means.

I have seen the Great Wall from the sky. That’s great.

I got hired by a small airline, Midway, and missed what I (always) was doing. A lot of people like that schedule, and for me, getting a call to pack your bags and you’re going to Berlin is exciting. I missed it.

(He took an early leave of absence after 9/11 to return to Air Ambulance. After that company collapsed, he decided to start his own company in 2003.)

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

Two days after Christmas, you’re on your way to and from Jamaica. Was the last-minute scramble typical?

This is our specialty anywhere in the world, we call it long-distance medical transport. Ninety percent of our trips are urgent like this. We don’t have much plan. This is the nature of business.

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Medical (team members) would tell me: time is organization.

Did the Jamaica patient do it?

He did it. They are optimistic that he will recover.

What is the body of the business—sick or injured passengers on a cruise ship?cases like this Florida boy with rare brain-eating amoeba Did you fly to Chicago for medical treatment? foreign visitor?

We do a lot of work for Canadians (who fly home to receive universal health care.) We do a lot of work for cruise ships…all kinds of medical emergencies. We work with Johns Hopkins (All Children’s Hospital) to transport premature babies. We did a lot of kids and everything in between.

On a trip out of Europe we met 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, am I going to sit on the porch and die?”

For me, it was eye-opening and life-changing. He is right.

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

Do you follow up with patients after your section is over?

We are. We get a lot of feedback (cards, notes, and in one recent case, a photo of a boy recovering in a hospital bed after an accident while snorkeling with his family in the Turks and Caicos Islands.) Our nurses worked with patients and travel companions.

(Jet ICU flew Honeycutt’s father to two birthday parties after Honeycutt’s father heard that the twin babies, born prematurely in Utah, needed to be returned home to St. Petersburg.) The father attended two birthday parties (since). We have been in close contact with them.

This is a very rewarding business.

News reports mention cases where Jet ICU transportation was provided free of charge—for example, when USF student injured in car accident while visiting Cuba Couldn’t afford a plane to go home in 2015. (Recently, the company was Girl, 12, was the only survivor when her family fell into trouble While vacationing in Mexico in June. )

You know, we’re lucky. When we feel the need to join, we join. Tampa is now my town. You help your neighbors.

Tell me about a case that impressed you.

There are so many.

I flew a girl in ’98. She was 18 years old and terminally ill. She has bone marrow cancer. They brought her from Oslo for a new treatment they were trying. It doesn’t work for her, so we’re going to take her home. (On that flight, they had to divert her, land her, and push her through customs.) She was in a lot of pain.

So we pushed her out. I said, “I’m sorry we had to stop.” She said, “No—thank you. You’re going to take me home so I can die with my family.”

How many miles do you think you’ve logged?

I’ve flown east three times. Westbound twice. From a pilot’s perspective, not many people do that. I’m very lucky.

So, more miles than I can remember.

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

Is flying still fun?

this is. They say if you do what you love, you won’t work a day in your life.

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