Air Force Uses Cutting-Edge Isolation Pod to Evacuate COVID-19 Patients from Afghanistan

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First-ever operational use of the Transport Isolation System at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Three U.S. Air Force medical airmen exit a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft following the first-ever operational use of the Transport Isolation System at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 10, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Devin Nothstine)

A cutting-edge Air Force system designed amid the Ebola epidemic to transport infected patients in safety was put to its first operational use this month to evacuate three coronavirus-stricken contractors from Afghanistan to Germany.

Air Force Air Mobility Command aircrew and medical personnel used the Transport Isolation System to carry three U.S. government contractors who tested positive for coronavirus on board a C-17 Globemaster III to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the service said in a release.

The mission -- dubbed REACH 725 -- marked the first time the TIS had been used since the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the first operational use to transport coronavirus patients on board an aircraft, the Air Force said.

The TIS, which can carry two to four patients within a podlike chamber, was designed to contain patients harboring infectious diseases within transport aircraft to minimize exposure of airborne and non-airborne pathogens to surrounding Critical Care Air Transport Team members, Aeromedical evacuation personnel and remaining aircrew.

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The TIS consists of an airlock antechamber module and two isolation modules retrofitted onto an aircraft pallet, which together weigh roughly 2,700 pounds. The pallets are watertight and equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration system to block the spread of pathogens.

The C-17 is able to transport two TIS units; the system can also fly on C-130H and C-130J Hercules aircraft, according to the service. It was first delivered to the Air Force in 2015.

In coordination with U.S. Transportation Command, the 618th Air Operations Center on April 8 sent out the first order to get a TIS-trained AMC aircrew and medical team at Ramstein Air Base ready to prepare for a mission within 24 hours, the release said. Officials said airmen were "pre-staged" with a Joint Base Charleston C-17 and TIS at Ramstein's 86th Airlift Wing in late March as the novel coronavirus continued to spread.

"Through the meticulous effort of AMC's planners over the past few weeks, in coordination with U.S. Transportation Command, we've produced a detailed plan that guides our crews on how to safely and effectively move ill patients to a location where they can receive greater care, all while providing protection for our aircrew, medical personnel and aircraft," said Brig. Gen. Jimmy Canlas, 618th AOC commander, in a released statement. "Within hours of completing and releasing this plan to the force, the crew of REACH 725 validated the hard work of these planners by safely transporting three COVID-19 patients nearly 4,000 miles from Afghanistan to Landstuhl."

"REACH 725 is a great demonstration of AMC's transition to a warfighting component command, with increased flexibility and speed enabling our mobility airmen to quickly answer any call for help during this global campaign to defeat COVID-19," added AMC commander Gen. Maryanne Miller.

"Delivering hope runs deep in the blood of mobility airmen, and I'm in awe of what they are doing for those in need," she said.

The Air Force has 13 fully configured mission-ready TIS units.

Gen. Arnold Bunch, head of Air Force Materiel Command, told Air Force Magazine on March 31 that in addition to the TIS, researchers have also begun testing a new system known as the Portable Bio-Containment Module, or PBCM. The system, which Bunch called an "urgent operational need," may allow for more patients to be treated safely during transport, the magazine said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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