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Vietnam Aeromedical Evacuation

Army Nurse 1st Lt. Elaine H. Niggemann changes a surgical dressing at the 24th Evacuation Hospital, Long Binh, South Vietnam, 9 July 1971
Army Nurse 1st Lt. Elaine H. Niggemann changes a surgical dressing at the 24th Evacuation Hospital, Long Binh, South Vietnam, 9 July 1971.

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Aeromedical Evacuation Advances after Korea

C-9A Nightingale Aeromedical Evacuation aircraft on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, 1 February 1973.  The aircraft were used to fly the American prisoners of war released by the Viet Cong at Loc Ninh, South Vitenam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines
C-9A Nightingale Aeromedical Evacuation aircraft on the flight line at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, 1 February 1973. The aircraft were used to fly the American prisoners of war released by the Viet Cong at Loc Ninh, South Vitenam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) in the Korean War, as in World War II, demonstrated the value of AE in saved lives and improved casualty outcomes. The tensions of the Cold War in the 1950s and the escalation of the Vietnam War provided the motivation for continued investment in AE by the U.S. military services.

The next major AE development after Korea was the introduction of the Convair C-131A Samaritan, the first airplane ever especially designed, built and procured by the armed forces exclusively for the transportation of patients. This pressurized aircraft, with a specialized interior for AE, offered fast service for the short air routes of Europe and North Africa. The C-131A, which made its debut on 26 March 1954, had a cruising speed of 235 knots, had room for 37 ambulatory patients or 27 litter patients plus four ambulatory patients, as well as a medical crew of three. The aircraft configuration accommodated specialized medical equipment such as an iron lung, orthopedic bed, artificial kidney machine, or infant incubator. All Samaritans were distinctly marked with a red cross on the tail.

In June 1966, Headquarters USAF directed Air Force Systems Command to submit a proposed source selection and procurement plan for a new AE aircraft. In July 1966, the Department of Defense agreed to initiate a modernization program, and in January 1967 it approved the purchase of eight aircraft plus spares. Three contractors responded with proposals: McDonnell-Douglas (DC-9A), British Aircraft Corporation (BAC-111), and Boeing (B-737). On 31 August 1967, McDonnell-Douglas received the contract, and the first aircraft was delivered to Scott AFB, IL, on 10 August 1968. Eventually, 21 C-9As were purchased through 1971.

Aeromedical Evacuation in Vietnam

The Republic of Vietnam presented extraordinary logistical challenges for Aeromedical Evacuation. Saigon was positioned in the tropics of Sourtheast Asia, halfway around the world from Washington, DC, with a 12-hour time difference between the cities. The nearest off-shore U.S. hospital was almost 1,000 miles away at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The nearest logistical support base was about 1,800 miles away in Okinawa. The nearest complete hospital center was in Japan, some 2,700 miles distant. Patients being evacuated to the United States had to travel some 7,800 miles to reach Travis Air Force Base in California, or almost 9,000 miles to reach Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, DC.

Because of these extended distances, even with modern air transport, the need for self-sufficiency in the combat operations zone was greater than what had been required in other wars. To compensate, the U.S. military deployed a higher ratio of service support troops (including medical) to combat troops than would be provided in more conventional situations.

Advances in AE improved medical care during the Vietnam War. Rapid evacuation of the wounded from Vietnam’s battlefields by helicopters, followed by jet transports to advanced treaatment facilities, saved many lives. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) operated in-country aeromedical service and transoceanic jet service to hospitals at Clark Air Base, Philippines, as well as Yokota AB and Tachikawa AB, Japan. Military Airlift Command (the successor to MATS) helped evacuate many casualties from Vietnam, handling all patient movement to the United States. PACAF’s 903d Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron provided the first mobile casualty-staging facility during this war.

Aircraft used for Aeromedical Evacuation during the Vietnam War

The aircraft used for AE during Vietnam included:

  • C-7 Caribou
  • C-9A Nightingale
  • C-130 Hercules
  • C-131A Samaritan
  • C-141 Starlifter

Ordinary transport planes equipped with litters flew most of the Vietnam War’s aeromedical missions. Although the Air Force acquired its first C-9A in August 1968, C-9As did not begin flying missions in Southeast Asia until March 1972.

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