"Traditionally, you might hear a few complaints when you ask people to work a 22-hour day, but there were absolutely no complaints on this trip. It's really hard to complain that you're working a long day when you're transporting guys who are missing legs and arms."
- Maj. Dan Boyack, KC-135 pilot with the Utah National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing
Because KC-135s usually carry out refueling missions, flying aeromedical evacuation was a rare - and rewarding - opportunity for this crew. Thanks, guys!
151st ARW aircrew performs most rewarding of missions
by Maj. Krista DeAngelis, 151st ARW/PA
2/1/2010 - RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Landing in the black of night, a Utah Air National Guard KC-135 air refueling tanker touches down at the Bagram Air Base airfield in Afghanistan. With no external lights and the clock ticking, crews on the plane know they only have a finite time to refuel and load injured patients onto their "air ambulance" for transport to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
With lives on the line, aeromedical evacuation crews scurry to load a handful of patients who have lost limbs, suffered head trauma and other injuries into the back of a reconfigured aircraft. Having loaded the KC-135 with medical support equipment in Germany, the aeromedical crews have virtually turned the back of the plane into a mobile hospital.
"When we arrived in Germany on the evening of December 27, Ramstein aeromedical crews began to configure the jet with patient support pallets," said Maj. Dan Boyack, a 191st Air Refueling Squadron pilot who flew his first AE mission during this trip. "While medical personnel arranged the aircraft, we went into crew rest to prepare for the next day's evacuation sortie."
That mission took them on a six-and-a-half-hour flight from Ramstein AB to Bagram to pick up the injured patients. With only two and a half hours on the ground, the aircrew fueled up, AE crews loaded up the patients, and the KC-135 turned around for another seven-and-a-half-hour flight back to Germany.
"It ends up being about a 22-hour day from start to finish," said Maj. Corey Love, 191st ARS pilot. "We land at about midnight when it's dark for security reasons. Although there is currently no surface-to-air threat there, the biggest threat is small arms fire... which is why we perform a tactical decent and arrival with all of our lights out. The KC-135 is the only non-defensible airframe that is allowed to land at Bagram, so we have to be very safety conscious."
Once the aircraft lands at Bagram, the AE crews and/or critical care teams take over and load the patients, who range from civilian contractors to U.S. and coalition military members, into the back of the aircraft and prepare them for the flight to Germany. In flight, the medical crews monitor the patients, take their vitals, provide drugs, and try to assist with their comfort levels. Once the plane lands at the Ramstein flightline, aeromedical ground crews off-load the patients on K-Loaders and transport them via an ambulance bus to LRMC where they receive the critical medical attention they require.
A K-Loader is an unusual sight at Landstuhl, and I did a double take when I saw one last month. As the name implies, it's used with KC-135s. Most aeromedical evacuation is carried out with C-17s or C-130s.
"A team of about 15 people is usually waiting for us when we land," explained Major Love. "They have ambulances - those big medical busses on the ramp - and usually a flight surgeon who will take control of the patients. It usually takes about 30 minutes to get them all off."
By the end of their two-week rotation to Ramstein, the Utah aircrew had flown four AE missions on December 28 and 30 and January 1 and 3, as well as transported nine critical care patients, 33 litter patients, 18 ambulatory patients and 20 medical attendants. The crew arrived safely back in Salt Lake on January 6.
"There was no down-time on this trip," said Major Love. "We were either in crew rest or flying for 13 straight days, so it was busy."
Historically, the Utah ANG's primary focus has been the KC-135's air refueling capability. The AE mission has often been understated, but aircrews agree that it is the most satisfying of all missions.
"It was the most rewarding and demanding mission I've ever done," said Major Love. "This is the first time I've felt like we were really involved in what was happening in the war. You're pretty much detached when you're air refueling... you go up there and refuel fighters or bombers or cargo planes, then you go home and land somewhere safe and warm. But this time, it was rewarding to land where people are actually getting injured and putting their lives on the line and then we get to bring them home."
The pilots weren't the only ones who felt the AE mission was worthwhile.
"People really hustled and the crew chiefs really got into their jobs on this mission," said Major Boyack. "Traditionally, you might hear a few complaints when you ask people to work a 22-hour day, but there were absolutely no complaints on this trip. It's really hard to complain that you're working a long day when you're transporting guys who are missing legs and arms."
"We also talked to some of the medical crews out there who are deployed for four to six months and you hear the same kinds of things from them - that this is the most rewarding mission they've been a part of," said Major Love.
Major Boyack echoed the sentiment, and explained how their mission was also integrally intertwined with current events.
"It was pretty interesting to go back to the room and watch the news and know what you were probably going to be doing the next day," he said. "We were actually on the ground when the bomb went off and injured the CIA guys, and we ended up bringing some of the wounded back for that."
Over the past several years, the 151st Air Refueling Wing has performed five AE missions. The wing is currently scheduled to fly another mission in March 2010.