The move to Keesler Air Force Base made a lot of sense for the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, even though it was not strictly voluntary.
The 125-person unit is one of about 40 such squadrons across the Air Force, Reserves and National Guard. The 36th had been housed at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina under the 440th Wing, which is being deactivated. So as it has again and again since being activated in 1959 — its motto is “Triumph through adversity” — the squadron needed a new home.
Enter Keesler Air Force Base and the Air Force Reserves 403rd Wing. The Biloxi wing’s fleet of 20 C-130s is perfect for the squadron’s training missions, and the base hospital, the second largest in the Air Force, is nearby for ongoing training requirements.
The move was announced in the spring and on Saturday the unit was officially welcomed with a redesignation ceremony.
“We’re so ecstatic to bring you into not only the 403rd but also Team Keesler,” said Lt. Col. Brian May, the commander of the 403rd Operations Group. “Those are some superheroes,” he said of the new squadron. “It’s amazing what you guys do and the gifts you’ve been given to impact lives.”
An aeromedical evacuation squadron’s mission is retrieving and transporting patients and providing time-sensitive critical care while in the air. Those patients may come from military operations, humanitarian assistance or disaster response — this unit helped during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We turn the C-130 into a flying ambulance,” said Senior Master Sgt. Tony Staut of the 36th. “What you can do in an ambulance, we can do in the air.”
The type and number of interventions these teams can perform in-flight has been steadily increasing and surgery at 30,000 feet will soon be possible.
It’s not exactly like working in a hospital, though, said Maj. Jesse Walsh, a flight nurse. There is limited equipment and sometimes the nurses and technicians need to improvise. The planes can get crowded and busy — they can fit up to 50 patients if the need arises. It’s cold and loud.
And oxygen and people’s bodies behave differently that high in the air so a good grasp of altitude physiology is absolutely necessary, Walsh said.
It’s work that requires continuing training and practice, but the squadron doesn’t have its own aircraft.
That’s one of the reasons the move to Keesler made so much sense.
The C-130s that the Hurricane Hunters and the Flying Jennies use — each unit has 10 — are one of three types of aircraft aeromedical evacuation squadrons can use. Hurricane Hunters missions require only the front of the aircraft while aeromedical evacuation squadrons need only the rear half.
That means a single flight can serve as a training mission for both the Hurricane Hunters and the aeromedical evacuation squadron.
Keesler’s hospital also is a training advantage. Commanders will no longer have to send people around the country for additional training. They can send them down the street, where the hospital is equipped with highly trained personnel and high-tech equipment.
“This will give us training-lab opportunities we don’t have elsewhere,” Staut said.
The 36th is the second squadron to arrive at Keesler this year. A new maintenance unit to care for the Flying Jennies, the 815th Tactical Airlift Squadron, was activated in a ceremony in September. The 815th airlifts supplies and equipment for military and humanitarian missions.
Of the 125 people needed to staff the Reserve unit, only 30 chose to remain in the squadron, and most of those will continue to live in North Carolina.
That means the squadron is recruiting.
Its commander, Col. Thomas Hansen, said when the squadron moved to Pope Air Force Base several years ago, it was ready to go in 11 months. He expects to match that at Keesler.
“We don’t have time to waste,” he said. “We have to be ready.”
Walsh, who has spent seven years as a flight nurse, said the mission is rewarding.
“We take care of the best patients in the world,” she said. “It’s an honor to bring them home and take care of them.”