Nose shot of the C-9 Nightingale before the aircraft taxied to the runway for its last flight.

Nose shot of the C-9 Nightingale before the aircraft taxied to the runway for its last flight. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The C-9A Nightingale received heaps of praise Friday morning.

Then, the Yokota community waved goodbye as the last two Nightingales in the Pacific theater zoomed off.

Upon liftoff at about 11:20 a.m., one of the planes headed for the aircraft “graveyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz. The other circled the area for about an hour with media on board before quietly returning to Yokota.

Three pilots from the 30th Airlift Squadron will fly the almost-extinct bird across the Pacific on Sunday, also to the Air Force “boneyard” — the final resting place of the service’s fleet of 20 C-9A Nightingales.

That flight will likely mark the end of the C-9A’s stay in the Pacific theater, a history that spans more than 30 years.

Flight crews who spent long hours caring for patients as the C-9 darted to far corners of the Western Pacific were a bit teary-eyed for the white machines with black noses parked outside Hangar 15 during Friday’s ceremony.

“I felt like the airplane died,” said Tech. Sgt. Kelle Turner, an aeromedical technician with the 374th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. “I started to cry. We’re emotionally attached.”

The crews’ beloved jets received a fitting farewell: Scores of distinguished visitors, airmen and family members turned out for a ceremony that included music from the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia, a toast by base leaders to the C-9, and cake. As the planes departed, firetrucks sprayed their hoses in front of the hangar and the crowd cheered.

“I’m just glad the ceremony went so well,” said 1st Lt. Allen Specht, one of three C-9 aviators who will pilot its final flight in the Pacific on Sunday. “On the other hand, it’s really sad to see the end.”

Members of the 374th Aeromedical Squadron, 30th Airlift Squadron and 374th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron — those integral to Yokota’s aeromedical-evacuation mission — stood silently while base leaders applauded them for saving countless lives.

“I want you to be proud of what you’ve done, the lives you have saved or improved because of the care you gave,” said Col. Mark Schissler, the 374th Airlift Wing commander. “The crews have often brushed elbows with our nation’s heroes.”

The vintage C-9 jets, which entered service at the height of the Vietnam War, were also praised: “The aircraft was the epitome of anything, anywhere,” said Col. Carlton Everhart, the 374th Operations Group commander, noting that the planes had a 98 percent departure-reliability rate in 2003.

But before they grew too nostalgic, the flight nurses and aeromedical technicians were reminded that their mission outlives the C-9. “Please know that your Air Force is counting on you to continue this lifesaving mission in the future,” Schissler said.

The loss of Yokota’s four C-9A Nightingales means that about 272 military personnel and their families will leave here by the end of October, according to Yokota officials. Of that number, about 119 military personnel and their families are headed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Air Force officials say the 1968 airframes cost too much to maintain, have a limited range and fewer patients need transport.

The 30th Airlift Squadron and 374th Aeromedical Squadron will be deactivated at a Sept. 25 ceremony on Yokota.

35 years of lifesaving service

Eyeing a more modern aeromedical-evacuation airframe, the Air Force ordered production of the first C-9A Nightingale in 1968, and the aircraft completed its first mission that same year.

The planes began flying in the Pacific Air Forces area of operation Feb. 18, 1972, under the control of the Military Airlift Command.

One of the C-9’s earlier missions was transporting prisoners of war to hospitals during the Vietnam War.

The 20th Operations Squadron, originally based at Clark Air Base, Philippines, converted from C-118s to C-9s in 1972.

In 1989, according to PACAF officials, three C-9s from the 20th Aeromedical Airlift Squadron moved from Clark Air Base to Yokota Air Base, Japan. A fourth was later added.

As part of Air Force reorganization in October 1992, Military Airlift Command — now known as Air Mobility Command — transferred airlift responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific theater to PACAF.

The 20th Aeromedical Airlift Squadron was inactivated Oct. 1, 1993, and the 30th Airlift Squadron was reassigned from Air Mobility Command to the 374th Airlift Wing under PACAF on the same date.

The C-9 performed its last “urgent” aeromedical mission in the Pacific on Aug. 25, when it transported a 6-year-old girl to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, saving her life, Yokota officials said.

— Staff reports

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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