By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith
National Guard Bureau
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – The Mississippi Air National Guard’s 172nd Airlift Wing makes it look so easy: how they fly aeromedical evacuation missions to the other side of the world, land in a combat zone, pick up wounded warriors and fly home – volunteering to do it over and over again.
Airmen from the 172nd flew such a mission March 2, looking rested and eager to take off from Andrews Air Force Base, Md. – the first stop on their aerovac mission to Iraq and back.
It was one of a series of flights that occur weekly for the 172nd, which transports patients from Balad Air Base, Iraq, to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and to the states.
The medics at Balad know the Mississippi Guard well, and they know that their C-17 Globemaster IIIs are the fastest way out of Iraq for the wounded warriors. The Air Guard wing has perhaps the most seasoned and professional aerovac crews taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
How seasoned? They have performed more than 350 aerovac missions since October 2005. More importantly, they’ve carried thousands of sick and wounded service members to lifesaving hospitals and medical specialists.
Professional? They airlift a majority of aerovacs flying out of Balad, and they receive a lot of praise from passengers.
“The Mississippi crews are outstanding,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Patrick Perretta, a New York aeromedical director deployed to Germany with the 791st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.
Each aerovac draws upon a host of skills and units. Perretta and his medical team joined the Guardmembers on the Ramstein flightline. Together they prepared. The crew attended operational briefings, combed through preflight checklists, and loaded cargo into the plane. The medics hung oxygen and power lines to configure the C-17 into a flying hospital.
It was a five-hour flight to Balad, located in northern Iraq and approximately 42 miles north of Baghdad. Nearing their destination, pilots U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Nap Bryan, Capt. Brian Childress and 1st Lt. Wes Carter put on night vision goggles and prepared for a combat landing. The stealth is necessary. “There are constant attacks here,” a security forces flight chief at Balad said recently. Everyone wore protective flak-vests and helmets.
After the plane touched down on the dark flightline and rolled to a halt, U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Robert Lundy, the loadmaster, emptied the bay of the cargo that the plane flew to Iraq, and the medics filled it with patients and gear.
The patients, mostly U.S. Army Soldiers, walked aboard if they were able. Others were carried aboard on litters. Their conditions ranged from stable to critical. Lundy made sure the aircraft was set up for them.
“We make sure the medical crew has all the equipment they need, and we give them assistance,” Lundy said. From the C-17’s forward loadmaster station, Lundy controlled the lights, heating, and air conditioning as well as the oxygen system used by the medics.
It usually takes three Airmen to fly a C-17: two pilots and a loadmaster. But the aerovac missions require additional pilots to allow for crew rest and technicians to maintain it downrange.
It’s all operated by voluntary deployments. The Guard members fly nearly 40 hours to complete one round-trip mission in five days. Approximately 40 maintenance personnel deploy for 60 to 120 days to maintain the aircraft at Ramstein.
The wing began the aerovacs in 2005 with 18 flights per month: four flights per week from their base in Jackson, Miss., with two aircrews flying alert missions from Ramstein. Now, they operate 12 missions a month from their base in Jackson. “As long as we have people who continue to volunteer, we will continue doing it,” said Childress.
Childress said the crew does all it can to make the patients as comfortable as possible. The C-17 is engineered for that.
The Air Force calls the $200 million C-17 its most flexible cargo aircraft. A brightly-lit, spacious cargo bay — 88 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 12 feet high – confirms the claim. An environmental system maintains cabin temperatures suitable for burn patients, and its cargo bay is engineered to be quieter than other aircraft.
The wing, which was the first Guard unit to fly the plane, boasts a mission capability rate of more than 90 percent.
It was early in the morning when the aerovac returned to Ramstein. The patients were offloaded and transported to awaiting medical teams.
The medics said those with severe injuries go to combat support hospitals. Those needing advanced care go to nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Stateside flights bring patients to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington or burn patients to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
After an overnight rest, the crew flew out of Ramstein to bring a group of patients to Andrews. The eight-hour flight gave them time to wonder what events their patients faced during their deployments that put them on the aerovac.
According to a February report by the Defense Manpower Data Center, more than 32,000 coalition forces have been medically air-transported in OIF for combat wounds, non-hostile injuries, and diseases, four years into the war in Iraq.
At Andrews, a cold winter breeze blew through the open cargo doors. It brought with it a group of people who welcomed the patients home.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction knowing you’ve taken care of the wounded, that we got them where they needed to go most comfortably and expediently possible,” Childress said.
The aircrew watched them go. Then they prepared for the flight to Mississippi and home.