C-17 crew brings wounded home

Pictured from left to right, Airman 1st Class Austen Copeland, Capt. Eric Rieboldt, Capt. Grant Hadley and Senior Airman Max Oldroyd, all assigned to the 21st Airlift Squadron, pose for a group picture on the flightline at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., April 26, 2016.  This aircrew evacuated injured Americans following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium. Not pictured but also part of the crew were 1st Lt. Justin Gross and Staff Sgt. Chase Decker. (U.S. Air Force photo by Louis Briscese)

Pictured from left to right, Airman 1st Class Austen Copeland, Capt. Eric Rieboldt, Capt. Grant Hadley and Senior Airman Max Oldroyd, all assigned to the 21st Airlift Squadron, pose for a group picture on the flightline at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., April 26, 2016. This aircrew evacuated injured Americans following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium. Not pictured but also part of the crew were 1st Lt. Justin Gross and Staff Sgt. Chase Decker. (U.S. Air Force photo by Louis Briscese)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- In early April, a Travis Air Force Base C-17 Globemaster III crew transported back to the United States an Air Force family wounded March 22 in the Brussels, Belgium, terrorist attacks.

The ultimate result of a joint, multi-nation effort requiring extensive cooperation and planning, the mission - call sign "Reach 564" - showcased special Air Force capabilities and exemplified Travis' proximity to world events.

Capt. Grant Hadley, C-17 pilot and aircraft commander from Chandler, Arizona, led the crew with fellow pilots Capt. Eric Rieboldt from Walnut Creek, California, and 1st Lt. Justin Gross from Spokane, Washington. In the cargo bay, loadmasters Airman 1st Class Austen Copeland from Lincoln, Nebraska, and Senior Airman Max Oldroyd from Somerset, Massachusetts, ensured safety through proper loading, securing and escorting of cargo and passengers, while crew chief Senior Airman Chase Decker of Kennewick, Washington, maintained the aircraft's systems.

A standard downrange mission

Just moments before departing Travis on what they thought would be a typical overseas mission, the members of the young 21st Airlift Squadron crew received a call from schedulers telling them to expect reassignment enroute.

"OK, cool, expect to be recut. It's not that unusual. It's unusual for it to be accompanied with the question, 'Are you aerial refueling capable?' That usually means it's some sort of high priority mission," Hadley said. "The last time this happened at Travis was a Guantanamo detainee transfer."

Hadley and his team speculated that the mission could be related to Brussels given the recent attack and the airport information provided by the schedulers, but there was no way to be sure. They continued as planned on their mission, ferrying troops and Humvees from a Midwestern U.S. base to a Middle Eastern country.

"When we're out on these missions, at any given time, you can get pulled to do something else, so being trained, qualified, having your skills all up to par and understanding the rules and regulations not just for what you're doing, but for what you could end up doing, is important," said Hadley. "There's a wide variety of things we could be recut to go do and we need to be ready for them at all times."

On the return leg, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, notified Hadley about a change in plans. He realized their mission would become something much more serious when he read the words, "Mission will early terminate at Ramstein to pick up aeromedical evacuation mission."

Reach 564 departed Incirlik and flew into the unknown, unclear of what exactly it'd be asked to do in the coming days.

Patient requirements

At Ramstein Air Base, Germany, a six-person aeromedical evacuation or AE team - nurses and medical techs - joined Reach 564 and reconfigured the aircraft into a mobile Intensive Care Unit. They installed litter stanchions along one side of the aircraft, leaving one side available for equipment. Hadley called the medical coordinator in Brussels, who provided more details.

"At that point, we figured out what it actually was. Up until that point it was speculation," said Hadley.

The next day, the C-17 departed Ramstein for Brussels.

"This is why we're here," said Rieboldt. "This is why this jet was designed to do the AE mission for situations just like this and the fact that it was an Air Force family kind of brings it all around."

For Hadley, on his second mission as aircraft commander, the new tasking offered distinct challenges, including altitude restrictions combined with fuel and weather considerations.

"What was stressful was trying to anticipate what could possibly go wrong and (trying) to solve it before hand to minimize issues," he said. "We'd briefed up contingency plans every step of the way."

The planners called for an aerial refueling en route to the destination in Texas, but Reach 564 wondered if it could make the flight without refueling.

"Refueling, while not a violent maneuver, is bumpy and given the medical state of the folks downstairs, we wanted to make things as smooth as possible to avoid any additional pain or inconvenience," said Hadley.

By avoiding refueling, the crew could speed up the flight time and avoid bumps along the way.

The medical team also required the cabin altitude to not exceed 6,000 feet, which equates to a flight altitude of 32,000 feet.

"Typically we'd be crossing the ocean at 35 or 36,000 feet," he said. "It seems like a small difference, only 10 percent, but at that altitude, burn rate for fuel becomes a major factor and winds can be more challenging down low. It's dynamic. It just depends."

"And we're flying west against the jet stream, so we're fighting those winds the entire way," said Rieboldt.

"Capt. Rieboldt and Lt. Gross specifically did an in-depth analysis of our route of flight, and the winds, and determined we would be able to make it without refueling," said Hadley. "We planned it. We looked at it. We ran the numbers and we all agreed that, yes, we could make it all the way there."

They received clearance to load 200,000 versus 100,000 pounds of fuel in Brussels and planned to cancel their aerial refueling in flight once positive they wouldn't need it.

"The last thing we'd want to do is divert, land, refuel, lengthen their day and cause them additional bumps and pain," said Hadley.

"The mission was so important that we waited all the way up until the last possible moment to where we canceled our tanker," said Rieboldt. "So we put our faith in the crew and a little bit in the mission computer."

Load and go

Military leaders, State Department staff, Belgian officials and medical teams met Reach 564 at the Brussels airport. Loading the required 90 tons of fuel took several hours. During that time, the loadmasters and AE crew facilitated a brief goodwill tour of the jet and demonstration of the mobile ICU capabilities, said Hadley.

The five patients arrived with a 10-member Army burn team including a surgeon, doctors and ICU nurses. Copeland, on his second mission as a primary loadmaster, marshalled the ambulances under the gaze of generals and diplomats.

"The burn team got them all set up. It took a long time," said Hadley. "(Between) the amount of equipment and medical stuff they brought on board with them, having it in the right position, strapped down and easily accessible, it took an hour after they were loaded before the burn unit gave us the thumbs up to go."

Reach 564 knew the mission would be tough. Hadley watched the crew load the patients, but returned to the flight deck at a certain point.

"Being on the flight deck during the loading process was helpful for me because it's hard not to see yourself and your own family in that group," said Hadley. "But we had a job to do and we wanted to get them from point A to point B. We're not doing any good for them by feeling bad for them, but we can do good for them by making the mission happen and getting it done as expeditiously and professionally as possible. So, we were intentional about not getting wrapped up and talking about how sucky the situation was."

According to Hadley, the AE team facilitated the Army burn unit's interaction with the plane.

"I think they were so in the zone trying to help the patients that it didn't even phase them that they were on the aircraft," said Oldroyd. "We listen to the medical director, the head nurse and she runs the show in the back. We're there to help her and coordinate between Capt. Hadley in this case and make sure everything runs smoothly."

Transatlantic

Reach 564 departed Belgium for Texas and the 11.5-hour flight went according to plan.

"We tried to do optimum routing to avoid turbulence as much as possible," said Hadley. "It was clear that they were still in pain despite medication and constant attention of these professionals downstairs."

Despite the hope the flight represented, the serious and somber nature of the mission loomed for Reach 564.

"The son was the first person that was directly in front of me, and periodically throughout the flight I would see him open his eyes. He had to be in a blanket because he had so many burns all over his body that the ambient air hurt him," said Copeland. "I just wanted to get them to where they needed to go as quickly and comfortably as possible."

At 32,000 feet over the Atlantic, Reach 564 fought the jet stream winds and the crew stayed focused on their mission, while the patients endured another painful step on their path to recovery.

"It was rough seeing kids in this state, knowing they did nothing to deserve it," Oldroyd said.

While Oldroyd had flown medical missions before, for Copeland, Reach 564 was his first.

"I remember the dad halfway through the flight, he was awake and I just saw him, one time, actually a couple times, he was looking down at his finger," Copeland said. "He was playing with his wedding ring."

Despite the challenges, the AE team remained upbeat, said Hadley. Bolstering people's spirits is an important part of their care.

"We flew direct to Texas. No bumps along the way. We tried to avoid making it longer or more uncomfortable," said Hadley. "The C-17 is actually designed to land more firmly, so we briefed and talked about making it as soft a landing as we could possibly do."

The aircraft landed gently in Texas. In the sunset silence, the loadmasters martialed in a line of waiting ambulances to take the wounded to a nearby hospital. The ambulance lights flashed as they slowly rolled into the darkness and, just like that, the Reach 564 crew members were left to themselves, alone in the silvery bright belly of the C-17 surrounded by the debris of transatlantic medical care.

Reach 564 returned to Travis. The AE crew departed for Germany. Some of the flight crew took leave. Some went on new missions. Others prepared for other assignments.

The C-17 flies around the world, never staying at any one place for more than a few days. More stories bleed into the aircraft's bones every day. If only they could speak.

"We're making a difference in the world," said Hadley. "People don't always see that because it's behind the scenes support work, but it's crucial that we get the job done because, oftentimes, there's no backup. There's no backup plan for what we do. We get it done or it doesn't happen."

Something larger than ourselves

A month after returning home, four members of Reach 564 gathered in a darkened film studio at Travis. They joked and laughed as young people who've seen hard things often do.

"It's very heartwarming knowing that you're able to help and go out and help those people that were injured," said Copeland. "It's just our job. It's what we do."

They were humble. They didn't think they'd done anything special with the AE mission. There are hundreds of Airmen like them at Travis and thousands throughout the Air Force.

"I've flown a lot of missions, and this is probably the one that will stick with me the most," said Oldroyd.

In fact, they all agreed that this mission was the most rewarding thing they'd done in the Air Force.

Reach 564 saw the impact of their efforts which is sometimes difficult in the mobility world.

"Oftentimes, it's just a big metal box or a series of metal boxes or cars. And you really don't know your impact. That's very much a side note," said Hadley. "It's easy to get bogged down and not remember the real impact, but with these sorts of missions, you can't help but see the real impact because it's right there in front of you."

To the hurting Air Force family Reach 564 transported, Hadley said, "There's a lot of people out there who are on their side who care about them, have them in their hearts and prayers. If this did give them any hope whatsoever that they're not alone that would be fantastic."