The Flying Emergency Room

One reason more soldiers are making it home alive.

Wounded service members are taken off a C-17 and brought into Scott, which serves as a hub in moving the injured from the battlefield to U.S. treatment facilities. (USAF / Senior Airman Ryan Crane)
Air & Space Magazine

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The airplane took off. Diplomatic clearances paved the way through airspace above Iraq, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. As it waded through the relatively thick air at 26,000 feet, the Globemaster burned more fuel per hour than normal. “The biggest issues that pilots must deal with in evac scenarios are time and fuel,” says Bufton. “As far as time, we made sure that all air traffic controllers were aware that we were a time-critical medevac, and we were given priority.”

Then a glitch surfaced: A miscommunication occurred between the tanker and the Tanker Airlift Control Center, so the rendezvous planned over Turkey for the first refueling couldn’t happen. Luckily, the mission planners had anticipated that possibility: In case one of the refuelings didn’t work out, they had had the airplane loaded “heavy” with fuel. “Since we had excess gas, we were able to continue without the first upload, and met the second tanker over the U.K.,” says Bufton. “It could have been an issue if we had not switched to an extended-range jet out of Al Udeid [Qatar].”

Fourteen hours after takeoff, and 20 hours from the moment he was stabbed, Powers touched down at Andrews. It was 4 a.m., July 4. Still in critical condition, Powers was rushed the 20 miles to the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Following surgery and a month-long stay at Bethesda, Powers returned to his wife Trudy and his home, near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Amazingly, his vision, cognition, and memory are intact. He had balance difficulties, but several months of therapy overcame them. Two years later, he was back with his unit, making a parachute jump.

As for the C-17 crew who flew him to Washington, they were given 18 hours to recover. The next morning they flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they took on 17 pallets of cargo and headed to Ramstein, Germany, then back to Qatar. “The return put us back in the system flying regularly scheduled cargo across the pond, just like any other mission that C-17s normally fly,” says Bufton.

It’s never ideal to put a gravely ill person into a potentially unstable environment like an airplane fuselage, but now, military aircraft can be so well equipped and the crews attending the injured so well trained that the patient can receive almost hospital-level care. Today, aeromedical evacuation crews average 10 potentially life-saving missions a day. Says Captain Kathleen Ferrero, a spokeswoman with the Air Mobility Command, “We move patients 3,000 miles that a civilian entity wouldn’t consider moving 50 miles.” 

Michael Klesius is a former Air & Space/Smithsonian associate editor.

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