Several Airmen, however, have had the unique opportunity to directly assist the Italian air force, the French air force and the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force in their response efforts.
These Airmen are part of the U.S. Air Force Military Personnel Exchange Program, which is a special duty assignment that allows the Air Force to foster and expand international relationships with coalition and global partners.
Maj. Jeffrey Furnary is a C-130J Super Hercules pilot assigned to the Italian air force’s Secondo Gruppo Volo, 46 Brigata Aerea (2nd Flight Group, 46th Air Brigade) in Pisa, Italy. While this group’s primary mission is strategic and tactical transport, its missions can also include aeromedical evacuation, a specialty that has been in high demand during Italy’s response to COVID-19.
“During the first week of (Italy’s) national lockdown we started flying COVID patients and supplies to try to get patients to ICU (intensive care unit) beds in other parts of the country,” Furnary said. “From a pilot’s perspective, it is just another day, but when you think about the impact you can make for the patient it is highly rewarding.”
Capt. Daniel Mahon, a combat search and rescue pilot assigned to the French air force’s Helicopter Squadron 1/67 Pyrenees, Base Aérienne 120 (Cazaux Air Base), France, had maintained a 24-hour alert with his unit since March 25 waiting to be employed to support civilian authorities. On the night of March 31, Mahon was on alert status when his unit was tasked to provide medical evacuation support and he was one of the first individuals tasked from his unit.
“We left for Villacoublay the morning of April 1 and subsequently performed two simultaneous missions, transporting four patients from Paris-Orly to Caen and Angers, respectively,” Mahon said. “The hospitals in Paris were becoming oversaturated to the point where there simply were not enough resources, human or material, to provide the appropriate level of care. Our actions prevented medical staff from having to triage or reject patients altogether.”
The captain said it was both humbling and rewarding to be able to participate in an operation of such grand scale and importance in direct support of French citizens.
Maj. Rich Schanda is also a CSAR pilot and currently is a Puma Exchange Pilot assigned to the RAF’s 33 Squadron, A flight, RAF Benson, United Kingdom, where his primary mission is to provide general helicopter support to the Ministry of Defense.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Schanda said his squadron’s primary mission has shifted to providing logistical and MEDEVAC support to the Scottish population.
“We provide MEDEVAC coverage 24/7 from Kinloss Barracks,” Schanda said. “When there are COVID-19 patients that need to be moved from isolated or remote areas of Scotland, particularly the outlying islands and the highlands, and fixed wing aircraft cannot get to them, we are tasked to evacuate them and bring them to one of the larger hospitals in Glasgow or Edinburgh.”
Schanda said the most rewarding aspect of these missions has been reassuring the Scottish people that the military has their back, and will come to their aid no matter the time or place.
All three of the exchange pilots lauded the extensive mission planning for health and safety concerns of the aircrew by both military and their civilian counterparts to ensure their continuation of their military missions.
“It’s an absolute honor working alongside the RAF. They are extremely professional and take great care in their work,” said Schanda. “I get a lot of satisfaction being able to bring my CSAR experience and apply it to the current situation, helping the Puma squadron when and where I can.”
Furnary echoed Schanda’s sentiments.
“I am just a member of the amazing group here in Pisa,” Furnary said. “(I) am extremely proud to fly with them on missions that mean so much to their country and its people.”
As the world continues to work towards flattening the COVID-19 curve, MPEP officers will continue to stand side-by-side with their foreign military counterparts ready to assist.