GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
When the KC-135 was designed for its role as an air refueling aircraft in the 1950s, designers probably did not take into consideration the plane would someday become an aeromedical evacuation platform.
The decision to retire the C-9 Nightingale, the Air Force's aeromedical evacuation plane of choice for many years, forced yet another decision. What will replace the C-9 for those missions? The answer came in many forms, to include the KC-135 taking on a portion of those missions.
"When the C-9, as an airframe and a program, went away, the need for air evac didn't," said Maj. Eric Brumskill, 912th Air Refueling Squadron director of operations. "So what ended up happening is downrange in the areas where troops are deployed, instead of a C-9, they were using strategic airlift such as a C-17, C-5, C-141, and the C-130 to move people forward out of the area. They mainly used C-130s intratheater to pick them up out of the hot spots."
Here comes the tanker
Major Brumskill, a KC-135R pilot who is also a former C-9 pilot, said where the tanker comes in, particularly downrange, is that it's the fastest of all the large aircraft.
"We obviously have the most range because we carry gas ourselves so they figured, let's use tankers when they are not doing air refueling missions," Major Brumskill said.
The major said much of the same thinking applies to tanker use for aeromedical evacuation missions stateside.
"Because the C-9 is gone, C-141s, C-130s and tankers do their generic C-9 runs now," Major Brumskill said. "As this whole thing has evolved, we had to come up with procedures, specific systems, palletizing the litters and many other things to make the tanker capable of supporting this mission."
Major Brumskill said his first aeromedical evacuation mission with a tanker had two patients on board who were hit with a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
"They had severe burns," he said. "There were also others with various injuries who were being moved. Most of the folks we were picking up were from down range in the AOR from places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
"When you see people like that and you know you are doing a mission that is going to help them get better, it's a great feeling," he said. "It's great because we are helping someone who needs our help."
By last summer, air mobility experts and engineers had figured out a configuration and had interim guidance established.
In the Air Mobility Command guidance, it says the KC-135 is not an optimal platform for aeromedical operations. However, with current operations tempo, the KC-135 is one of few platforms available for use.
"Crew resource management between aeromedical evacuation crews and front-end crews is paramount to the success of this challenging mission," the AMC guidance states. "Crew resource management is critical as many of the tanker crews have never conducted an aeromedical evacuation mission before and aeromedical evacuation crew managers are new to tanker operations."
Major Brumskill said even though the tanker is not ideal for aeromedical evacuation missions, the people in the tanker world have made it happen.
"In this case we have adapted and overcome," Major Brumskill said. "Almost all of the tanker units in the Air Force are now tapped to fly specific aeromedical evacuation flights."
The major, who has flown on two aeromedical evacuation missions, said the missions for the 319th Air Refueling Wing are now standard.
"When we do a mission, we preposition to Andrews with a crew and a KC-135R Stratotanker and that's where it all starts," Major Brumskill said. "From Andrews we upload what's called a PSP, or patient support pallet. What they are is two pallets that we put on a roller system to configure the jet for aeromedical evacuation. In other words the pallets are configured to support several patients in litters along both sides of the aircraft. It's a pretty unique set-up."
From Andrews, Major Brumskill said the tanker goes on its run, boarding and moving patients at various locations.
"The patients are always stabilized and they quite often are coming out of the area of responsibility such as Iraq or Afghanistan," the major said. "What you see on these missions is amazing and makes you glad you are a part of helping someone."
Capt. Cheri Gavan, a KC-135R co-pilot from the 906th Air Refueling Squadron, did her first aeromedical evacuation mission in September 2003. She said it was quite a learning experience.
"It was a pretty hard mission," Captain Gavan said, "Since these types of tanker misssions were still in the early stages, we were still working out a lot of things. Overall though, it was great to do these missions and go to all those different airfields we normally don't go to."
Gavan said because these are humanitarian missions instead of refueling missions, they provide aircrew members with a whole new perspective.
"On these missions, the results of what you have to do are more apparent and hit home a bit more," the captain said. "It can put everything into perspective when you bring someone home to their family or to someplace that is going to help them to get better."
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