A clear vision and some skillful maneuvering brought this helicopter pilot to St. Augustine. Fate – and a bit more maneuvering – has brought him back.
To truly understand Nikolaos Kanellos’ love for his adopted home you’d have to see it from his perspective. In order to do that you’d first have to glean the Oldest City from a few thousand feet above – specifically from the cockpit of Nikolaos’ EC135 helicopter, which he flies all over St. Johns County as a TraumaOne pilot servicing University of Florida hospitals. Even that bird’s eye view wouldn’t tell the whole story, however. In fact, to really gain the proper insight as to how he got here, you’d need to travel another 5,000 miles to Nikolaos’ native city of Athens, Greece.
From an early age, Nikolaos says he understood that his love for flying was profound. “I was lucky to be the kind of person who knew at an early age what I wanted to do,” he says. After earning a degree in aircraft engineering, Nikolaos enlisted in Greek Air Force, where he served as a Sergeant mechanic. “That’s where I really fell in love with the helicopter as an idea,” he says of his time in the military.
Although he loves his home country – as evidenced by the years he spent in the armed forces – after his time in the service, Nikolaos shocked his friends and family when he announced he would be moving to the United States to attend civilian flight school. “My family thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “I knew no one in the States. I could speak and maybe understand 45 percent of the language.”
Despite his own reservations, Nikolaos says the training he would be able to undertake in the United States was well beyond what he could get anywhere else. Just two weeks after he was dismissed from the Greek Air Force, Nikolaos boarded a flight to the United States to attend Titusville’s Bristow Academy – the world’s largest civilian helicopter training facility. “My intentions were always to return to my family in Greece,” he says. “Looking back, I guess I was very naïve. Life ended up getting in the way.”
Nikolaos excelled at the Bristow Academy, earning certification as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, and instrument flight instructor. Upon graduation he was hired by the Bristow Academy as an instructor.
Soon after, Nikolaos went on a date, traveling north to visit St. Augustine. And this is where, one could say, life certainly ended up getting “in the way” of his future plans, as Nikolaos fell head over heals not only for the city he was visiting, but with the person he was visiting the city with – another pilot named Jessica.
In 2012, Jessica and Nikolaos got married. The location of their ceremony? Where else, but St. Augustine? “If I could have time back, I’d love to live that era again,” Nikolaos says. “It was such an exciting time. The learning curve for me as a new person to this country and as a pilot was ninety degrees. Then I met my wife. Things couldn’t have worked out better.” The couple moved to South New Jersey, where Nikolaos flew medical helicopters servicing the greater Philadelphia area.
But they longed to return to Florida. “We hated the winters up there,” he says. When the company Nikolaos was flying for was bought out, he applied for transfer to Florida. He didn’t get the gig on the first try, but kept at it, finally landing a job to fly for TraumaOne, which was in the process of opening an operation based out of St. Augustine.
Saving lives while flying a state of the art medical helicopter, Nikolaos is living a life that is professionally fulfilling beyond anything he could have ever dreamed. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work very hard to get to where I am,” he says. “I am so proud that I get to help other people doing something that I love. And the fact that they pay me for it, that’s amazing.”
Oh, and the helicopter is pretty cool, too. The Eurocopter EC135P2 Plus (produced by Airbus) is a twin-engine helicopter equipped with night vision and IFR technology (which makes it possible to land in low visibility situations). The aircraft has incredible range allowing Nikolaos and his crew – which typically includes a paramedic and a flight nurse – to service an area that includes St. Johns, Yulee, Flagler, Putnam, and Clay Counties, as well as Duval and Volusia, when needed.
In emergency situations Nikolaos’ team can land virtually anywhere, but his main role is to transfer patients between facilities, in case a patient is administered into Flagler Hospital, for example, and the nature of his or her injuries exceed the capabilities of that particular hospital. He’s seen quite a bit of Northeast Florida from above. It’s a view of which he never tires. But, with a three year old and a ten month old at home, Nikolaos admits his current schedule – which had him working 12 hour shifts weekly, one week on followed by a week off – is just another perk on a long list. “To be able to see my family everyday is such a blessing,” Nikolaos says.
On his days off Nikolaos can be found exploring Anastasia Island with his family or stomping around downtown St. Augustine hunting for vintage finds. “I take the boys with me to look for old books and vinyl, which I’m a big collector of,” he says.
With the Spanish architecture and the St. Photios Greek National Shrine, Nikolaos says there is plenty to remind of his home continent. While he’s got plenty of whirling and roving journeys left, he hopes his movements will be confined to the cockpit of his helicopter. His itinerant days are over.
“We have a very strong bond with St. Augustine,” he says. “I can’t think of a better place to live and raise a family.”
Photography by Rob Futrell