By Kelly Twedell
On a crisp Monday in March, the local media loaded up the ramp in the rear of the C-130 for a comprehensive demonstration of the 440th Airlift Wing’s tactical airlift and Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron’s capabilities during a four hour flight up the coast and back.
During the preflight inspection and inventory, before the mission brief, I ventured up into the cockpit of the large aircraft and put on the headset to hear what was going on in the airwaves moderated by the air traffic control tower personnel. Our flight crew during the trip consisted of Captain Eric O’Connor, and Captain Eryck Ferguson — both from Pinehurst and Senior Airman Nick Miner from Rock Hill, South Carolina, the loadmaster.
SRA Miner, a supervisor at UPS throughout most of the year, doubles as a traditional reservist one week each month at Pope. “I love flying and being able to do personnel drops for the 82nd Airborne, along with the airdrops and container delivery system training loads,” Nick said.
For Captain Ferguson, service in the military runs deep in his family. The pilot has 1,150 hours of flight time and intends to make a lifelong career of it.
All equipment and supplies were cinched down and expertly packed into the tight spaces like puzzle pieces. The heavy cubicle shaped green power generator securely clipped into the floor to provide power and lifesaving electricity required to keep the oxygen systems flowing to the mock patients on the litters clipped in from the floor to ceiling. While the crew used battery-operated noise cancelling headsets where they could privately communicate with one another, the media crews used foam earplugs to muffle the engine noise as they ascended over the familiar landscape of our community.
Our flight plan for the day? The C-130 gradually ascended to altitude at 9,000 feet and later descended to 500 feet flying ‘nap of the earth’ along the Outer Banks’ infamous lighthouse route, finally meandering down to the ship channels of Charleston and back to Pope.
One could tell the camaraderie ran strong in this unit and it appeared they had many inside jokes among them about the nuances that go along with their jobs. The loud roar of the engines was soothing inside the cool cabin allowing a quick nap for most.
During the flight, the crew underwent several emergency drills and procedures under the approving nod of the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron commander, Colonel Tom Hansen. Col. Hansen is a flight nurse operating from Pope Field but spends the other three weeks each month as a family nurse practitioner out of Gig Harbor, Washington. As a traditional reservist, he travels for duty once a month and thanks to technology manages to lead the team from another time zone before each rotation.
A flurry of activity ensued as the crew reacted to a mock fire drill where they donned protective masks and miniature oxygen containers. The personnel expeditiously followed a checklist from their manuals each performing a specific duty in accordance with training guidelines.
One female flight nurse, Captain Sabrina Ruppe, was simultaneously checking the team’s oxygen saturation levels looking for any change in their vital sign status and asked the mock patients how they felt while performing medical assessments on them. When not serving at Pope, Sabrina is an emergency room nurse in Greenwood, South Carolina.
Simplifying their duties, the implementation of iPad technology made the run through of tasks seemingly effortless. The crew still carried paper checklists in their cargo pocket on their lower pants legs, containing all flight regulations and resources needed as a backup.
Getting the bird's eye view, we had the opportunity to observe the pilots navigating and flying the large aircraft with all the controls, switches, buttons and radios that seemed overwhelming to the average civilian.
While GPS tracking and radios alleviate some of the pilot’s mental work, I found it interesting to see Capt. O’Connor unfold his accordion style map, checking the flight pattern to ensure we were on course while scanning the horizon for any other small private planes operating within the FARs.
1st Lt. Alyssa Sandquist, a first year flight nurse, explained why she thoroughly enjoys her job. “I’m always learning, and it’s a different kind of nursing than in the civilian world.” Her civilian job as an intensive care unit nurse at Onslow Memorial Hospital in Hampstead, North Carolina clearly prepares her to work under pressure in the Air Force uniform.
Responding to a patient seizure scenario, the medically trained team quickly began performing CPR on the mock patient rotating turns with chest compressions, until he pulled through. As a bystander, it was stressful watching the mock exercise pondering the stark reality that they perform the same duties on our critically wounded military men and women as they are evacuated from a war zone.
If you have lost anyone in the war, or have known anyone who has sustained life-threatening injuries, at times, this was humbling and difficult to observe.
I have a newfound appreciation for the jobs of our Air Force after getting a first-hand look at the day-to-day duties from inside the cavernous ambulance with wings. These flight nurses are prepared for anything while operating under pressure, all while serving their nation.
About Pope’s 440th Airlift Wing
Maintain 12 C-130 aircraft, 3,500 airmen total, 1,400 reservists and 400 active duty Air Force personnel
Consist of five major command components at Pope Army
Provide 23% of the total airlift for Fort Bragg’s paratrooper training missions
Two crews deployed continuously for past five years