Yokota AIR BASE, Japan -- The sound of an engine, too quiet to be the massive C-130J Super Hercules, rumbles above the flightline as a small white plane disappears into the clouds, its load differing from its larger brother. This lesser-known aircraft at Yokota carries with it not only patients in need of specialized medical care, but the hope of a better tomorrow.
For the pilots of the C-12J Huron assigned to Yokota’s very own 459th Airlift Squadron, this delivery of hope is just a perk of the job—providing aeromedical evacuation to the individuals that need it.
“Different bases have different levels of care they are able to provide,” said Maj. Christopher Tulk, 459th AS assistant director of operations. “If someone can’t get the help that they need at their base, they need to get to a base that can provide that help. Sometimes commercial airlines are not a good option for them because the patient needs to be monitored while they’re en route to the next location. That’s where we come in.”
Since September 2017, the 459th AS has been the primary ambulance in the sky for all United States military personnel and their families in Southeast Asia. The pilots make sure they transport the patient to appropriate care as quickly as possible and during the flight, a medical team monitors vitals.
“It is interesting to see the med team performing back there,” said 1st Lt. Daniel Carr, 459th AS executive officer and C-12J pilot. “It gives you the confidence that they are accomplishing whatever needs to be done. We know the patient is in safe hands.
“Most of our patients are in need of behavioral intensive care, so we provide quick movements to get them to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, for transfer to the U.S.”
The evac team responds to those specific medical concerns most frequently, but occasionally, these pilots handle a case that stops them in their tracks.
“Recently we had a toddler with leukemia,” said Carr. “We wore masks for the safety of the patient because he was immunocompromised.”
While these safety measures are common procedures, completing this mission was one that brought its own hardship. Even though he was not the pilot at the time, Tulk said, to see a child go through such an unforgivable and unbiased disease would break the heart of most people. These pilots witnessed a small innocent face, weary from a constant battle.
Transporting the child as quickly as possible could have been the only mission, but for Yokota’s C-12J pilots there was something more in mind, bringing out a spark in the little boy’s eyes.
“I gave him a patch and talked openly with his mom, because I could see her son was really shy and struggling,” said Carr. “I thought it must be really cool for him to be on a military plane, so I wanted to make the experience as memorable as possible. I wanted to make sure that he was comfortable. By giving him something small, like the patch, it made him feel special. It definitely felt good to see him brighten up.”
Getting the toddler to specialized care for treatment was an amazing feeling, said Tulk. His battle and the battles of other patients continue to be supported whole-heartedly by the flying team and the entire 459th AS.
“One patient we helped had a ruptured abscess, which meant we needed to keep the cabin altitude very low,” said Tulk. “The pilots flew lower than they normally would, while the aeromedical technicians made sure to have constant oxygen for the patient.
“We have the capability to provide medical oxygen en route, which is a little different than the oxygen you would get on a normal airliner. In cases like the abscess, we actually had to give them a different concentration of oxygen.”
For the 459th AS pilots, conducting this potentially life-saving mission for fellow service members and their families provides its own unique satisfaction.
“When it comes to aeromedical evacuation it’s just nice to know that you are part of a bigger picture,” said Carr. “It’s rewarding to know that we’re part of making these patients feel better. To know we were part of the effort to get them the help they need, the help they deserve.”