TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — After spending two hours clearing customs at Entebbe, Uganda, and enduring a long delay in being refueled, 21st Airlift Squadron Capt. Brendan Hopkins was ready to get his C-17 off the ground Dec. 21 to bring two aircrews and about 30 passengers home in time for Christmas.
Just as he was preparing to taxi onto the airport’s runway, the radio call came through asking, “Are you airborne?”
Hopkins answered no and was told to hold position.
“Two minutes later, we were told why,” Hopkins said.
Three VC-22 Ospreys were inbound from the north, carrying three seriously wounded service members who had been shot up when the Ospreys tried to approach the Sudanese town of Bor to evacuate Americans. They had been greeted by gunfire from the ground.
One of the wounded had already gone into cardiac arrest while on the Osprey and would do so again while on the C-17, revived each time by the medics on board.
A fourth man, a pararescueman, was also wounded, but was so busy keeping the others alive to notice he had shrapnel in his back, Hopkins said.
“And he didn’t realize it until he got to the hospital,” he said.
Hopkins, 21st ALS pilot Capt. Clay Westberry and the C-17 aircrew were told to take on the wounded and medical personnel and get them to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya.
That meant completely reconfiguring the aircraft, removing pallets of cargo, putting up litter stanchions, reworking flight plans and getting the necessary clearances in as little time possible.
As the C-17 taxied in behind the arriving Ospreys, one pilot asked for as much room as possible because most of his hydraulics were shot out.
“Very few things get my adrenaline going – and this was one of them,” Hopkins said. “The urgency – everyone felt it. We all fell into the job that needed to be done.”
While Hopkins was up front getting the C-17 prepped for its new mission, Westberry was in back, where two pallets of cargo and 10 passengers had to be offloaded to make room.
“Everyone had the mindset to do whatever it took to get these people to where they needed to be,” Westberry said.
One of those who stood out was Senior Airman Cody Nunez, who kept calm in the intimidating face of an Army special forces captain who demanded that the pallets be dragged out of the aircraft to get his wounded men on faster. Doing it that way could have damaged the C-17, keeping on the ground.
When the forklift packed in the C-17 would have taken too long to get out and nearby airport forklift was without a key, Staff Sgt. Joseph Rivera-Rodriguez of the 571st Global Mobility Squadron grabbed the key from the packed-away forklift, sprinted across the field, fired up the airfield forklift and stepped on the gas to get it to the C-17 “with black smoke spewing from it,” Hopkins said.
Within 30 minutes, the C-17 was ready and the wounded were stabilized enough to get them back in the air.
The flight to Nairobi took 40 minutes, with ambulances – complete with police escort – waiting to take the wounded to the hospital. That left the aircrew to clean up the blood, syringes and used medical kits while the other passengers waited under the wings.
“The coordination behind the scenes was amazing,” Hopkins said of the efforts made to save the wounded service members.
Westberry and Hopkins said they not only managed to get their original passengers home in time for Christmas, but the two aircrews played an essential role in ensuring the three wounded service members would be alive to see another Christmas.
“It was the most fulfilling hours of my life,” Hopkins said.
Westberry noted that if they had gotten through customs on time and if the fuel was not late, “we would have been on our way out of Africa when this happened.”
“It was a miracle that we were taking off later,” Westberry said.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.