791st EAES sees C-17 surpass millionth flying hour

Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Print News

Members of the 791st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evac-uation Squadron on a routine air evacuation mission from Iraq helped see the C-17 Globemaster fleet past the one millionth flying hour mark on their return to Ramstein Monday.

The C-17, from the Mississippi Air National Guard’s 172nd Airlift Wing, arrived here after a more than 14-hour mission that started late on Sunday.

The aircraft first delivered 43,000 pounds of cargo to Al Asad, Iraq. Then it flew to Balad to pick up 16 patients, including some critically wounded. The turnaround at Balad went like clockwork, said Col. William Hill, 172nd AW commander.

“We were in and out of Balad quickly,” he said. “Everything went real well.”

On board, the aircrew and aeromedical evacuation team focused on the patients. The team was a mixture of active duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen. There was even a flight lieutenant from the Royal Air Force on board. For them, the mission did not end until the patients were safely aboard ambulances bound for Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, about six miles away.

“It was a good flight. There were no emergencies in flight. Even the one critical care patient did well,” said Capt. David Strickland, nurse and guardsman from the Mississippi Guard’s 183rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. “The C-17 is made for this kind of mission − it’s the best plane for the job. It’s very ‘air evac’ friendly.”

The captain has been with the 791st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron for 90 days and has flown on 16 missions. Many of those flights return with an average of 25 to 30 patients, most wounded in combat. Last week he was on a mission that lasted 26 hours.

But on this mission, Captain Strickland said, “We didn’t have nearly the patient load today we had last week. This was a much shorter flight – we’re back early.”

The mission went as planned, said aircraft commander Lt. Col. Jim Conway of the Mississippi wing. He said it was a perfect example of the C-17’s direct delivery capability. That’s when an aircraft picks up cargo on the East Coast of the United States and flies to Ramstein, where a fresh crew can continue the flight, or it could spend the night.

The C-17 arrived nearly fully loaded, he said. It picked up more cargo at Ramstein. Also on board were nearly a dozen members of the media and their escorts.

“The flight was pretty routine,” Colonel Conway said, “We had a couple of minor changes, but nothing major. All in all, the mission went as planned.”

Loadmaster Senior Airman Sarah Zehringer said one reason the mission went without a hitch “is because these aeromedical evacuation folks really know their stuff.” The Airman deployed here from the 17th Airlift Squadron at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. She said the working relationship between aircrew and medics is a good one.

“We pretty much try to stay out of their way once they get their patients on board,” she said.

Once the aircraft landed and medical teams unloaded the patients, the significance of the flight sunk in for some of the crew. They were well aware they would be on an historic flight. And they had even put a poster in the aircraft that commemorated the flight.

Being on the flight “was an exciting and humbling experience,” Colonel Conway said.

Airman Zehringer said being on the historic flight was a privilege.

“I represent everybody I fly with,” she said. “And being a woman, I get to represent all the women who do this job — and there aren’t many of us. So this is pretty cool.”

But like most of her crewmates, she said it was more satisfying to accomplish a safe mission.

“It’s always a relief — and it fills you with pride — to be able to bring home wounded troops,” she said. “I just hope they get the care they need so they can be with their families real soon.”