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Rapid Antarctic airlift saves lives

A C-17 Globmaster III sits on the runway at McMurdo Station in Antarctic. At the request of the National Science Foundation, aircrews from the 304th Expeditionary Air Squadron supported an emergency medical evacuation of two patients Aug. 25. (Courtesy photo)

A C-17 Globemaster III sits on the runway at McMurdo Station in Antarctic. At the request of the National Science Foundation, aircrews from the 304th Expeditionary Air Squadron supported an emergency medical evacuation of two patients Aug. 25. (Courtesy photo)

A Christchurch New Zealand Life Fleet medical team loads response equipment onto the C-17 Globemaster III for an emergency MEDEVAC from the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station in the Antarctic Aug. 25. (Courtesy photo)

A Christchurch New Zealand Life Fleet medical team loads response equipment onto the C-17 Globemaster III for an emergency MEDEVAC from the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station in the Antarctic Aug. 25. (Courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Just after completing the final flight of the Southern hemisphere winter Antarctic season, the 304th Expeditionary Air Squadron was alerted there was a medical emergency at the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station Aug. 25. 

In the face of rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, the 304th EAS was able to redirect a mission to respond to the medical evacuation and use a local Christchurch New Zealand Life Fleet medical team to save time.

“We were in alert position to leave for Guam, and when I woke up, there was a note under my door that read we were now going to do a MEDEVAC mission,” said the mission’s Aircraft Commander Lt. Col. Bruce Cohn, 97th Airlift Squadron pilot.

Planners worked throughout the night to switch from a ‘go home’ mission to MEDEVAC mission to airlift two patients to medical facilities in Christchurch. During the flight to the Antarctic, aircrew were able to interact with the New Zealand Life Fleet medical team to orient them to the C-17 Globemaster III. 

“The team was great to work with, and this was their first aeromedical evacuation mission and flight on a military aircraft,” said Cohn. 

Upon landing, weather impacted the MEDEVAC mission. 

“Weather was favorable for the arrival except temperatures at the time of landing were much colder than previously forecasted,” said Lt. Col. Trace Dotson, the 304th EAS commander.

In what was described as one of the coldest landings ever performed in the Antarctic by the 304th EAS, the crew worked quickly in negative 65.2 Fahrenheit conditions to safely evacuate one critically ill patient and another patient needing medical care. 

“There was a lot of coordination with the New Zealand Life Fleet medical personnel as we usually work with Air Force Aeromedical Evacuation teams,” said Tech. Sgt. Seth Lewis, 7th Airlift Squadron loadmaster. “The increased coordination helped us perform the MEDEVAC safely. It was so cold that we weren’t able to open up the back of the aircraft, so the patients were loaded through the crew door, which is located on the front left side of the aircraft.”

With a wind-chill of negative 94 Fahrenheit, crew minimized time on the ground due to the extreme cold and returned the patients to Christchurch within 24 hours from the time we were notified of the evacuation request, said Dotson.

“This mission was outside normal operations since it was an emergency situation,” said Cohn. “The rapidness of how we changed gear to respond really showed the teamwork of all who were involved.”

The rapid, life-saving response demonstrated the flexibility and capabilities of the Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica to respond quickly to emergency situations in the Antarctic. The patients were treated in New Zealand medical facilities. 

“This was a complete different mission from what we typically do,” said Lewis. “It was really special to be part of something that you weren’t expecting. I was expecting to go home, but then I got to participate in a medical evacuation to help two people.”

The last dedicated medevac mission the 304th EAS supported was in 2013. The 304th is comprised of blended aircrews from the active duty 62nd Airlift Wing and the reserve 446th Airlift Wing.

The NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program. Operation Deep Freeze is the logistical support provided by the DoD to the USAP. This includes the coordination of strategic inter-theater airlift, tactical intra-theater airlift and airdrop, aeromedical evacuation support, search-and-rescue response, sealift, seaport access, bulk fuel supply, port cargo handling, and transportation requirements supporting the NSF.

This is a unique mission that demonstrates U.S. commitment to stability in the Pacific and research programs conducted for the betterment of all mankind.