YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- The 459th Airlift Squadron and 374th Medical Group participated in a mass casualty exercise with Yokosuka Naval Base personnel and Japan Self-Defense Force members at the JSDF Central Hospital, October 20, 2016.
According to Capt. Brandon Murphy, 374th Operations Group executive officer, the exercise allowed all participating members to gain experience transporting patients via a UH-1N Huey and assisted in strengthening joint and bilateral relations between the Air Force, Navy and JSDF members.
“We have this exercise drill every year and it is very importance for us and for the relationship between the US and JSDF,” said Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Vice Admiral Shigeki Yanagida, JSDF Central Hospital deputy commander. “It is important that we continue with future exercises to strengthen our capabilities and cooperation.”
According to Murphy, the exercise also allowed aircrew to gain experience landing on the helipad of the hospital, a challenging approach in unknown terrain. The pinnacle landing establishes knowledge for all future flights to the hospital.
The exercise involvement was another leg of a grander picture, the air ambulance program. Aircrew with the 459th Airlift Squadron realized their daily flights could do more than maintain training and fulfill the mission; they realized they could become ambulances.
The air ambulance program is a continuously growing program that allows patients at the Yokota Hospital to take prescheduled flights with the 459 AS to referred hospitals located off base.
“This is the culmination of a year-long effort of trying to establish our assets to better serve our base and local populace by providing medical support flights via the air ambulance program,” Murphy said. “Every Airmen and family member at Yokota can now utilizing flights that are already going to Tokyo or to a joint partner hospital.”
Unique medical cases may not be treatable at Yokota. In these specific instances patients are sent to other hospitals in the region with suitable treatment options. Most often that location is Yokosuka Naval Base. The typical route to the referred hospitals can take hours to drive in Tokyo traffic. For instance, a drive to Yokosuka takes roughly two hours. The journey can be an agonizing commute for someone with an ailment.
According to Murphy, the truly convenient aspect of the program is that the flights are taking place regardless of whether a patient boards or not. The 459 AS serves a primary mission of distinguished visitor transport throughout the Kanto Plains and Tokyo region. They often travel to, or pass by, many prime hospital locations near Yokota. Their UH-1N Huey’s cut the previously mentioned two-hour drive to a 20-minute flight.
In a basic sense, the AAP works with the 374th Medical Group calling the 459 AS to request a flight. If a flight is scheduled to or near the referred hospital, then each unit works their paperwork trail and the patient gains access to the flight.
“It is a very focused program at the moment looking at moving active duty dependent patients from [Yokota] to Yokosuka only,” said Maj. Jaime Kelbough, 374 Surgical Operations Squadron operating room flight commander. “These are very stable patients who don’t require cardiac monitoring or medicine pushes or ventilators.”
The 459 AS also has C-12 Hurons which provide aeromedical evacuations to patients who are in emergency situations. They often transport patients to Kadena Air Base, Japan, or Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The UH-1Ns and the associated air ambulance program provide a seemingly subtle difference, but one that limits the AAP.
Aeromedical evacuation is a regulated movement. The aircraft is specifically intended to meet the needs of the patient and are signed off to provide official transport. They also have medical staff on the flight who are trained for care during air transport.
The AAP is unregulated, meant for a moment of opportunity rather than a matter of emergency, according to Kelbough. The aircraft is not equipped with life-saving equipment and flying is not the only duty of those medical personnel who support the AAP.
Kelbough said the flights offer more than convenience though; they also decrease the risk of complications during travel time. The less time in transit, the less time there is for something to go wrong.
“We also have limited personnel, so the quicker we can go down and back, dropping off a patient and returning to the hospital, the better able we are to provide care to a multitude of patients,” Kelbough added.
In the future, Kelbaugh said the program could potentially see flights branching out to St. Johns Hospital and other hospitals in the Tokyo region. She said as the program progresses the flights may begin taking patients with more severity to their injuries or ailments.
Murphy said depending on where the program leads and with continued progression, it could provide support during contingency operations or a natural disaster response.
“We (374th Airlift Wing) and US Forces, Japan as a whole have committed to supporting our host nation in a wide array of scenarios. ” Murphy added. “This program is a huge stepping stone to bringing our promise to fruition by keeping our personnel trained and ready to support when we get that call.”