TALLINN, Estonia --
Twelve members of the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, honed life-saving skillsets on an overnight aeromedical readiness mission to Tallinn, Estonia, Feb. 23-24, 2019.
The team of medical specialists, consisting of flight nurses, aeromedical technicians, and the squadron’s director of operations, completed the mission onboard a C-130J from Ramstein AB’s 37th Airlift Squadron.
“For us, we basically take an aircraft and turn it into a flying hospital,” said Capt. Sara Hidinger, a flight nurse assigned to the 86 AES. “Our mission is to provide operational aeromedical evacuation for U.S. troops in the U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command theaters.”
According to Hidinger, Airmen from the 86 AES are qualified to treat patients onboard the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, Learjet C-21A, and the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.
To meet such a diversity of potential operating conditions and scenarios, aeromedical evacuation crew members are faced with the omnipresent task of building and maintaining in-flight medical proficiencies. Aeromedical readiness missions, like the one conducted by the 86 AES to Estonia, are designed as a forum for specialists to work through simulated trauma scenarios in a team environment.
While crewmembers may fly four or five times a month to stay current, a majority of their training missions are brief flights in the local area; less frequent are remain overnight (RON) missions that mandate an aircrew to overcome numerous logistics issues at a location not normally equipped to support military airlift or clinical care operations.
“A RON makes our younger airmen address questions like where they can store medications and where they can charge electronic equipment that aren’t a consideration on local missions,” Hidinger said. “It’s also good for our more seasoned personnel, because it provides many opportunities for them to weigh in with their own experiences when those questions come up.”
The mission to Tallinn coincided with Estonia’s annual Independence Day celebration, which this year marked 101 years since the Baltic nation gained sovereignty from the Russian empire. Estonia is a close U.S. ally, particularly in the areas of security and defense.
Enroute to Estonia, Airmen were faced with a battery of scenarios testing the decision-making processes for patient care while airborne. The simulations addressed handling of a change in patient status, change in patient mental status, a pediatric patient, burn patients, a muscular-skeletal patient injury, and others. More drills were staged on the return flight the following day.
“What we go through in every scenario is how to prep the patient, pre-flight considerations, and then how to care for them when we’re in flight,’ said Maj. Maria Rocio Vazquez, a flight nurse assigned to the 86 AES. “The mission clinical coordinator may inject something into the scenario – for instance, the patient is having more pain – then, we have to demonstrate how we would react to that in accordance to the patient’s vitals.”
The fact that each case was exercised in the air provided a realism unattainable during static drills.
“The stresses of flight are definitely something that we have to deal with,” said Senior Airman Michael Vanhorn, 86 AES aeromedical evaluation technician. “It’s important to get used to the aircraft while it’s in the air moving, as well as how your own body reacts to situations like airborne turbulence, vibrations, and temperature changes.”
Some Airmen had the chance to act as victims in the drills, which opened new empathy for the challenges patients face in-flight – especially in situations like a high-power, tactical take-off, exercised as the C-130J departed Ramstein AB.
“I’d never done a tactical takeoff before today,” said aeromedical evacuation technician Senior Airman R.J. Perry. “Being on a litter when that happened, I felt minor g-forces and I could feel the blood rushing to my head; if you have a patient who has a broken bone or fracture, it is critical to be aware of how flight conditions might be affecting them.”
While the mission of aeromedical evacuation may exact daunting demands from its practitioners, Vanhorn says the unit’s motto helps keeps him motivated to continually prepare for the next time his skills may be called up to save a life.
“’Always ready,’ just like it says on our patch – that’s what we train for.”