Utah Air Guard conducts crucial aeromedical evacuation mission in Pacific

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Annie Edwards
  • 151st Air Refueling Wing

A Utah Air National Guard KC-135R Stratotanker and a six-person crew from the 151st Air Refueling Wing transported three patients to the U.S. from the Pacific theater to receive critical medical care during an aeromedical evacuation mission Feb. 18-25.

After leaving Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base, the Utah crew, consisting of two pilots, a boom operator and three crew chiefs, landed at Travis Air Force Base, California, to pick up an active duty medical crew from the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron from Scott Air Force Base, Ill. and reconfigure the aircraft.

“During the aeromedical evacuation they use the cargo and passenger carrying capabilities of the KC-135 to allow the aircraft to function as an ambulance,” said Maj. Phil Schembri, a pilot with the 151st ARW.

“Our primary mission is refueling, but we can also be configured to do this mission,” said Schembri. “We are being tasked to work with the active duty component to add to their capabilities.”

Once on the ground at Travis AFB, the aircrew and maintenance personnel worked with the members of the medical team to accomplish the set-up of the Stanchion Litter System for transporting patients on stretchers during the flight.

On the following day, the medical crew brought the rest of their equipment onto the aircraft and set up the systems needed to care for their patients while in transport.

“We have to make sure we have emergency oxygen and electrical equipment ready so that by the time we put on patients if there were something to go wrong right off the bat, then we have the tools and equipment to properly take care of that patient once they are on board the aircraft,” Maj. Joel Villavert, flight nurse with the 375th AES.

After stopping at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii where several medical crew members traded places with personnel from the 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron from Kadena Air Base, Japan, the aircraft traveled to Guam to pick up the first patient.

Staff Sgt. Bill Nielson, a boom operator with the 151st ARW, said his job can become more chaotic during the medevac missions because there are so many more elements that he needs to take into consideration. During a refueling mission he said he only worries about one customer—the aircraft he is refueling.

“Our whole timing and clock rotates around the patients and the med group and getting them to the next place safely and on time,” said Nielson.

Having to coordinate so many moving parts can be challenging for the AE crew as well.

The flight nurse acting as medical crew director (MCD), oversees the mission, making sure the patients are loaded safely and there is safe patient care throughout the flight, said Maj. Wanda Greene, a flight nurse with the 18th AES, who acted as MCD during two of the legs of the AE mission. Additionally, the MCD is responsible for the overall coordination between the medical personnel, the aircrew, the patients and the ground elements at each stop along the way.

For flight nurses new to the MCD role, the most challenging part is “having to coordinate and integrate with so many moving pieces and parts and the irregularities that come along with it,” said Greene.

Greene added that there is always the potential for the unknown during AE missions and the crew needs to be prepared to react quickly and adapt to changing circumstances.

“Even though irregularities happen, we focus on keeping everyone informed and in the loop and then rallying everyone back together to make sure everyone is still on the same page,” said Greene.

Throughout the AE mission, the three crew chiefs with the 151st Maintenance Group kept the aircraft safe and ready to fly.

“We have to maintain the aircraft and do all the basic inspections to keep the jet flying, safe and always fully mission capable,” said Senior Airman McKell Tew, a crew chief with the 151st MXG.

Tew said that although her job is the same regardless of the mission they have been tasked with, she feels it is more rewarding to have the opportunity to provide this support to individuals in need of help.

After leaving Guam, they continued to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan to pick up two more patients.

One patient, due to the severity of the medical condition, required the addition of a Critical Care Air Transport Team. The CCATT is a three person team consisting of a doctor and a nurse that specialize in critical care as well as a respiratory therapist.

The AE crew and CCATT monitored and provided medical care to the patients throughout the flight from Kadena to Hickam AFB. Upon arrival, one patient stayed at the hospital there to receive further medical care. Several members of the AE crew also switched places with their counterparts before the flight left to transport the two remaining patients to Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.

After the patients were transported from the aircraft to the hospital, the aircraft stopped at Travis AFB to drop off the AE crew and their equipment before returning to Salt Lake City.

Greene expressed appreciation for the efforts of the Utah aircrew and maintenance personnel.

“These guys were top notch! They worked with us really well, asked us what we needed, and what they could do,” she said. “They did extra to make the group comfortable.”

During the week long mission, the Utah jet and crew traveled a total of 16,000 miles said Master Sgt. George LaCome, crew chief with the 151st MXG.

“This makes us more well-rounded,” said Nielson. “It is a great mission for the guard because it allows us to participate in the total force. We get to work with our active duty counterparts to do something different from our usual refueling mission.”