Tankers, cargo planes could see duty as medevacs
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2003
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — In a dry run of what could become a common way to transport patients over the Pacific’s vast distances, a KC-135 tanker aircraft outfitted with special equipment touched down here Wednesday with several litters holding mannequin “patients.”
“We’re ... making sure the infrastructure is in place to handle a KC-135 with patients,” said Maj. Ian Depledge, chief of KC-135 standardization and evaluation for Pacific Air Forces.
Earlier, the four-engine aircraft tested loading and unloading the simulated patients at Osan Air Base, South Korea, and at Yokota Air Base west of Tokyo. The tanker, assigned to the 909th Aerial Refueling Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, had a special pallet anchored to its floor, Depledge said.
Called the patient support pallet, it secures litters.
“It allows us flexibility for carrying litter-bound patients,” Depledge said.
The new pallets were battle-tested during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The C-17 Globemaster III that transported Pfc. Jessica Lynch and 49 others home was the first C-17 to use the pallets to return injured troops from the battlefield.
“The vision” is to be able to use any aircraft to evacuate patients, Maj. Lisa DeDecker, Air Mobility Command chief of aeromedical evacuation concept and development, said in a news release. Plans call for PSPs also to be used aboard the heavy-duty KC-10 tanker.
For years, the Air Force relied on the two-engine C-9 Nightingale, a military version of the DC-9, and the C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft, to evacuate patients by air. But the service plans to retire both, Air Force officials have said.
Depledge would not speculate whether the KC-135 consequently would see an expanded role as a medical evacuation aircraft in the Pacific.
“Obviously we have more usable fuel than a C-9, so we can fly longer legs,” he said. “Unless there are indications due to patient loads on board, we can still refuel aircraft in flight, too.”
A special ramp had to be placed at each Pacific base where a KC-135 with patients would land.
“The main change for us is the huge ramp for loading and unloading patients,” said Maj. Kelly Coleman, expeditionary medical operations and training flight commander for Misawa’s 35th Medical Group. “The KC-135 doesn’t have a built-in ramp for patients like the C-9 does.”
Maj. Tami Averett-Brauer said, “The retirement of the C-141 in 2006 has really brought this technology to the forefront as a critical need.
“When we started transitioning to the C-17, we knew that we would have situations that would require us to transport more than nine stretchers,” said Averett-Brauer, aeromedical allocation division chief at AMC’s Tanker Airlift Control Center.
With PSPs, the C-17 can carry up to 72 patients on up to 12 pallets.
The PSPs also save the Air Force millions of dollars each year, she said: “Purchasing the PSPs is far less expensive than the cost of modifying the existing fleet of aircraft to support needed aeromedical evacuation missions.”
Politicians pushing to keep C-9 flying
Concerned the pending retirement of the Air Force’s C-9 Nightingale — its mainstay for evacuating patients — would cost jobs in his district, an Illinois representative wants the Air Force to reconsider its plan.
The plane has been in the Air Force’s inventory since 1968.
“We have asked the Pentagon to re-evaluate their position about keeping at least some of the C-9s in service and at a minimum, do a phase-out,” U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, was quoted this week in the Belleville News Democrat as saying.
“They are in the process of looking at the whole issue right now and going back and looking at the different options,” he said.
Ten aging C-9 Nightingales, based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., could be retired because President Bush’s latest budget nixed operating funds that would keep the planes flying. C-9s operating in Japan also are on the list to be axed, Costello said.
“The C-9 is an older airplane that would cost considerable amounts of money to retrofit and upgrade to meet international noise standards and overall upgrades,” the newspaper quoted Costello as saying.
— Wayne Specht