JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
As the world watches the Ebola epidemic unfold, Airmen from the 437th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., are in the thick of the fight.
Aircrews from the 14th Airlift Squadron and 17th Airlift Squadron were two of the first five crews from Joint Base Charleston that went to Africa in support of Operation United Assistance. The other three missions were carried out by the 315th Airlift Wing.
"[Our mission] was to deliver 12 members of the 621st Contingency Response Wing, along with cargo support from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., to Monrovia, Liberia," said Capt. Caroline Tetrick, a pilot with the 17th AS. "It was a complicated upload out of McGuire, with 11 pieces of rolling stock, including generators, four-wheelers and a mobile command center."
As Tetrick and her crew were finishing their mission, Capt. David Blankenstein, a pilot from the 14th AS and his crew were on their way into Monrovia from Rota, Spain, with 85,000 pounds of cargo and 19 passengers made up of both medical personnel and civil engineers from the Air Force and Army.
"We [transported] multiple containers that will be used as a field hospital," said Blankenstein. "Each container contained a different section of the field hospital. For example, one container was a kitchen and one was a showering room."
The field hospital will be used to provide care for healthcare workers should they contract the Ebola virus.
While aircrews are required to maintain up-to-date immunizations, they were not required to take any additional immunizations before traveling to Africa. Crews did however, have to meet with Public Health and receive a briefing prior to departing JB Charleston.
"Public Health briefings are standard for crews going to other countries," said Lt. Col. Ray Clydesdale, 628th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander.
The Public Health briefings cover topics ranging from diseases, resources for care to the procurement of safe drinking water.
"For the affected region, we brief crews on the latest as far as the Ebola threat, but we also brief on Malaria and other diseases endemic to the region as well," said Clydesdale.
During the Public Health briefing, crews were instructed on how to use the sterilization and decontamination kits pre-positioned on the aircraft.
According to Tetrick, the kits were for "just-in-case" scenarios and included a jug of bleach, alcohol wipes, gloves and a mask.
Blankenstein echoed those sentiments.
"The emphasis for these kits was that they would be necessary should the need arise to move a patient infected with Ebola," he said. "We were told it would be highly unlikely that we would move infected patients."
It was also unlikely the aircrews would come into contact with anyone on the airfield who had been infected with the disease.
"We were met at the jet by an American liaison who told us that everyone coming onto the airfield gets their temperature checked daily and no one shakes hands," said Tetrick.
Time on the ground in Monrovia for Tetrick and Blankenship was less than three hours.
"We were on the ground for a little over two hours," Tetrick said. "Just long enough to offload all the cargo and people."
Prior to this mission, both aircrews had never flown into Monrovia before, and for Tetrick, aircraft maintenance issues and weather kept her crew on the ground in Rota for three days, delaying averting their travel to Monrovia.
"Finally, we made it to Liberia, picking our way through the dark and around thunderstorms to land at an airfield whose runway was not very well maintained and appeared quite old."
Tetrick and Blankenstein credit their training in helping them successfully land in Monrovia.
"Our training always focuses on supporting missions anywhere throughout the word," said Blankenstein. "We fly multiple simulators and local flying sorties that focus on the requirements of operating in and out of unfamiliar airfields."
Tetrick and her crew found other outlying factors impacted their mission.
"Some challenges that flying around Africa can bring include poor radio coverage, language barriers (many in northwest Africa speak French) and non-standard aviation procedures," she said.
Aircrews stationed at JB Charleston are no strangers to supporting humanitarian missions.
"Humanitarian aid and support type missions are one of the most rewarding missions we do in the C-17," said Blankenstein. "It always feels good being able to help other people throughout the world in their time of need when given the opportunity."
For Tetrick, this type of a mission was a first for her.
"It really felt great to be taking part in such an important cause," she said. "The crew and I felt so proud to be contributing to an international effort to stymie the spread of Ebola and bring relief to an area of crisis."