Transporting the wounded in Iraq.
- By Christopher Ryan
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
Nicole Fruges / San Antonio Express-News / Zumapress.com
(Page 3 of 3)
Picking up to a high hover, I nose the aircraft over and accelerate over the compound, housing units, and military vehicles and warehouses, and between Saddam-era aircraft shelters now filled with Air Force aircraft and support equipment. Our chase aircraft falls in behind us and we cross the fence into greater Iraq, approaching maximum level speed. Eight minutes from notification, Alamo flight is en route. Not bad.
We avoid overflying buildings as best we can. At this altitude and speed, we can just barely make out Iraqi people in red and black robes going about their business in the fields and small villages surrounding the base. From the air, it seems peaceful below. We wonder what the Iraqis think of us as we blow over their houses, day and night, on our way to lifesaving missions. Probably nothing good. One of our pilots has remarked that when they fire at our aircraft, half the time they probably don’t know that they are shooting at Iraqi patients. Today, we don’t notice if anyone shoots at us. Our plan is to be half a mile away by the time they can aim their weapons.
“Did you see that?” says the pilot.
Few of us did, but a few miles away, very near where we plan to fly, a thick column of black smoke rises from a burning vehicle. The pilot just saw the vehicle explode. We consider reporting what we have seen to headquarters, until we see two AH-64 Apache helicopters already circling the scene.
For now, we avoid the site by several miles. We will find out many hours later that this burning vehicle is where our casualties had come from, and the unit had hauled them back to Warhorse instead of calling us directly to the site.
We look ahead on the map and out the window for a clear approach to the base. A fairly large city is in our path, but working our way in from the north, we can avoid most of the built-up areas and not shake too many roofs. A few minutes out, the pilot is already talking to the base tower on one radio, and the medic has contacted the medics on the ground. We are less than a mile out now, on a close-in downwind approach that keeps us clear of the base, the built-up areas off base, and a big antenna right in the middle. I radio the chase aircraft to give us plenty of space for our turn to the base leg of the approach.
The pad is hard enough to see in daylight, and near impossible at night, when it is lost in the dark spots between blinding lights elsewhere on the base. In seconds we are calling “landing” to the tower and touching down on the helipads surrounded by protective barriers; just outside the walls, an ambulance waits. As soon as the parking brake is set and the flight controls are centered, the medics and crew chiefs of both aircraft are scrambling out their windows to get to the ambulance.
There is still some confusion as to how many patients we will have. The final vote is two, one for each aircraft. The infantrymen who have taken shrapnel have some burns, but they look okay. Stripped down to an army blanket and oxygen mask, our patient gives us a thumbs-up as he is loaded into the litter pan in back.
A quick before-takeoff check, and we are airborne again, over the fence, and speeding back to the hospital. The vehicle we saw earlier appears to have stopped burning. We avoid the area anyway. Everyone is happy that the two wounded are stable and will make it to the hospital for the hand-off to advanced care.
Halfway back, the medics transmit patient information to the emergency room, and within minutes we are touching down on the hospital pad. Seconds later, the medics and crew chiefs jump out and are met by several members of the hospital staff and litter team, who wheel the patients into the hospital. Inside, the medics will confer with the receiving medical personnel and make a speedy hand-off. Two more satisfied customers.
Our medics return with new litters, and we make the short flight to our unit, where oxygen tanks and medical supplies are restocked and the aircraft gets a final walk-around in case we need to launch again soon. Engines are shut down, the blades stop, and the paperwork and after-action review process begins. We’re not sure what the night will hold, but we are ready. So we go to dinner. It’s chicken again.
Having retired from the Army National Guard in 2011, Chris Ryan continues to fly helicopters in the civilian sector.