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Deployed Pope C-130 crew saves severely burned Iraqi woman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mindy Bloem
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
What does the recipe for an extraordinary human feat call for? For those involved in the mission of a severely burned Iraqi woman it called for one pound of hard work, a dash of know-how and a pinch of never quit. 

In the early morning hours of April 30, the flight crew of the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, deployed from Pope, received word that an Iraqi woman suffering from third degree burns and two broken arms needed to be relocated from an air base in central Iraq to a burn center in northern Iraq. 

On the way to the patient's location, the crew stopped to pick up the Critical Care Air Transport team medics and the fly-away security team. Unfortunately, due to inclement weather at the patient's location in central Iraq, the crew was instructed to cancel their last stop and redirected to pick up two non-critical care patients who initially were scheduled for pick up at a later time. 

This change in plans meant the crew had to coordinate engine shut down so more fuel could be added in order to complete the rest of the mission because none of the follow-on stops could offer fuel. 

Circumstances went from bad to worse when, after shutting down the engines, the crew realized they needed a new battery because theirs was dead. Luckily, a member of maintenance was able to locate a new one while the engineer refueled the aircraft. Once the engineer was given the go ahead to replace the battery, the crew took off only 30 minutes behind fragment of the daily air tasking order. 

"Our haste to leave this station was spurred on not only by our desire to meet the medical need of the mission, but also by the knowledge that the weather at our next destination was currently reporting one mile visibility, with a forecast of an imminent dust storm that was to reduce visibility to well below landing minimums," said Capt. Kenneth Hoekman, 746th EAS commander deployed from Pope. "We did not know if we would be able to land again that day after the dust storm hit, so we were anxious to reach the airfield so that the CCATT individuals would at least be able to start preparing the patient for the flight out, if flying were again to become possible." 

"Not knowing if the patient was going to make it or not was the main concern on the crews' minds," added Airman 1st Class Edward Janse, 746th EAS loadmaster deployed from Pope. "Yes, we cared for our own safety but our mission that day was just to get this patient to where she could get help." 

The crew landed successfully and preparations to prepare the patient for departure immediately followed. However, the crew encountered another obstacle when a dust storm hit about one hour before the patient would be transported to the aircraft. 

"It hit us like a brick wall," Captain Hoekman said. "In the course of 30 seconds, winds picked up considerably and visibility dropped to less than 20 feet." 

"I thought how are we going to get out of here? This situation just got a lot more intense, and this woman is dying; let's get her out -- whatever it takes," said 1st Lt. Anthony McKinney, 746th EAS Navigator deployed from Pope. "At one point we could hardly see a light pole 30 yards from the plane." 

While the crew shutdown and sealed the aircraft, the engineer went outside to place the plugs in the engine intakes. 

"For the next two hours we were pummeled by this storm, waiting out the thunderstorm, hail, and tornado warnings, until finally its intensity began to ebb," Capt. Hoekman said. 

"We coordinated with the medical personnel at the hospital to have the patient ready as soon as we had the visibility to takeoff. We also coordinated with our command to have our tactical duty day waived to 14 hours so that we could complete the mission as soon as the weather improved." 

The situation escalated to critically urgent, when after four hours the crew got word the patient would probably die if she wasn't flown out within two hours. 

Everyone sprung into action: the CCATT members went to bring out the patient while the engineer swept out the inch-deep layer of sand that had accumulated on the intakes in just the few minutes before they had been sealed. Visibility had increased to a quarter mile but was still below minimums. 

By the time the patient was brought to the aircraft with her husband by her side, the engines were ready to go and the crew was coordinating with air traffic control. 

They reached the runway just as visibility increased to the required minimums. 

"We immediately took off and flew to our hospital destination, crossing our fingers that the weather there was still within the required visual flight rules," Captain Hoekman said. 

"It was, barely." 

When the plane landed, everyone again worked together to make sure the patient was loaded into the ambulance and taken to the hospital. 

"The credit, in no small part, also goes to the Aeromedical Evacuation team, our maintenance crew and our command and control for backing us up," said Lieutenant McKinney. "Our crews job knowledge and experience level was key. It allowed us to keep the plane safe while pushing forward in marginal conditions." 

When the ambulance arrived back at the aircraft with the medical equipment in tow, the crew took off and was able to finally land back at their home station about 30 minutes before the expiration of their 18-hour extended duty day. 

"The exhaustion felt by every member of the crew after such a long and intense mission was more than offset by the knowledge that we had saved an Iraqi woman's life," Captain Hoekman said. "Each one of us can now claim to have contributed our own small part to the improvement of the Iraqi people." 

"These missions are the ones that count the most," Airman Janse said. "In many ways, we are helping others and still we are building a strong respect for our country with other countries which should pay off in the end for everyone." 

"I know there have been many critically injured Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan," Captain Hoekman said. "We do our utmost to bring care to these Soldiers, ensuring they receive the best possible treatment, and transporting them to hospitals either in the area of responsibility or on the first leg of a trip back to Europe or the United States. However, this mission, from start to finish, was created and executed for the primary purpose of saving the life of an Iraqi woman. 

"Despite all the negative propaganda about the war in Iraq, the success or lack thereof that we have had here, or the depiction of American Soldiers as opportunist and warmongers, we do everything in our power to aid the Iraqi people when it is within our capability to do so. There was never any hesitation or waning of enthusiasm when we found out that the injured person we were going to help was an Iraqi. We earnestly did our own small, tangible part in bringing about a better life for the people of Iraq."