KC-135s take on aeromedical evacuation role
by Staff Sgt. Nick Przybyciel
92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
8/9/2006 - FAIRCHILD AFB, Wash. (AFPN) -- While the KC-135 Stratotanker was originally designed to extend the length of other aircrafts' flight times, aircrews at Fairchild are also using the airplane for a completely different mission: to extend medical care to critically injured patients.
Tanker aircraft began augmenting the Air Force's aeromedical evacuation mission in 2003, demonstrating the versatility of both the airframe and the crews who fly it. On a recent mission by Fairchild Airmen, a crew from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron logged 50 hours of flying time over nine days in order to provide medical treatment to numerous patients.
"All in all, it was kind of eye-opening to me," said Capt. Denique Asion, a KC-135 pilot from the 92nd ARS, about his first aeromedical evacuation mission. "It's neat to be on a flight where you're directly involved in saving lives. When you refuel an A-10 (Thunderbolt II) and the pilot says, 'Thanks for saving our butts,' it's a great feeling. But, it's not as cool as getting a patient to the hospital."
The three-person crew left Fairchild July 1 en route to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. At Travis, they loaded their KC-135 with the patient support pallets that would be used to stabilize patients while in flight.
Senior Airman Chelsey Johnson, a boom operator with the 92nd ARS, oversaw the configuration. Airman Johnson's role in aeromedical evacuations is to supervise the medical crew while they load and unload their equipment and to ensure the airplane is properly configured.
"Working with (medical) groups that flew with us was very awakening," Airman Johnson said. "They shared information about the patients to tell us what type of patients we were carrying ... but the most rewarding thing was widening my experience as a boom (operator)."
After configuring the KC-135 for its new mission, the airplane was transformed from a refueling platform to that of life-saving. However, the chocks could not be pulled without a human element being added to increase the airframe's capabilities -- the flight medics who would be responsible for stabilizing the injured patients.
Epitomizing the total force concept, a team of aeromedical evacuation flight medics from the Air Force Reserve joined the active-duty flight crew for the mission. They were just one of several Reserve teams the aircrew worked with during the nine days it spent airlifting patients. Aeromedical members from the Reserve represent 65 percent of the total medical crew capability in the Air Force.
"They were really good," Captain Asion said. "Everyone worked really hard to pull this off."
Braving a typhoon while heading in and out of Kadena Air Base, Japan, the flight crew and medics were still able to get the job done.
"There were some impressive weather issues ... it made for some really long days mixed in there," Captain Asion said.
Captain Asion's crew and the flight medics onboard airlifted patients with a wide range of medical conditions, including a terminally ill cancer patient and a woman who suffered from severe head trauma after falling from a two-story building.
"It's pretty rough to watch," Captain Asion said. "Some of the patients really get to you emotionally."
The ability of the KC-135 to fly extended missions makes it a desirable airframe to participate in long-range aeromedical evacuation flights, said Lt. Col. Scott Musser, commander of the 92nd ARS.
"We picked up the missions because the C-9 stood down," he said. "The KC-135 was naturally the choice because of the long distances it can fly."
The 92nd ARS and 93rd ARS from Fairchild have flown 24 aeromedical evacuation missions since 2005.
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