Less than 100 days from an idea on a napkin to its first real-world, aeromedical evacuation, the Negatively Pressurized Conex completed its first operational mission July 1, moving 12 patients from the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to receive a higher level of care at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
The NPC is the latest isolated containment chamber developed to transport individuals with infectious diseases, like the novel coronavirus.
This operation brings the total number of patients retrieved by the mobility Air Force using an isolation containment chamber to more than 100 across 18 missions since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
At the onset of the outbreak, in anticipation of the need to transport individuals with the coronavirus, Air Mobility Command increased training on the Transport Isolation System, an isolation chamber developed during the 2014 Ebola crisis but never operationalized.
The TIS was first used April 10, 2020, to transport three COVID-positive patients and has since been used to perform 16 additional aeromedical evacuations.
However, the TIS offers limited capability, as each was designed to transport two to four patients. So, in early April, AMC and Air Force Materiel Command leaders joined forces to invite creative materiel and non-materiel solutions to address a Joint Urgent Operational Need, or JUON, to move large numbers of COVID-19 patients.
The answer was the NPC, which was made possible by a team comprised of the Air Force Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Systems Branch working with the Joint Program Executive Office for CBRN Defense and partnering with teams across the Air Force and Department of Defense under the direction of the Program Executive Office for Agile Combat Support as the JUON lead for the Air Force.
The NPC offers a significant capacity increase, capable of safely transporting up to 28 passengers, 23 ambulatory patients, or eight litters. Multiple configurations are available to accommodate combinations of ambulatory and litter patients, as dictated by the situation.
“Watching the team come together to train on this system in theater and then fly its first mission shows what can be accomplished when whole-of-government and industry partners work selflessly, sacrificing long hours and personal time in order to produce a solution that saves lives,” said Capt. Alexis Todaro, NPC program manager who delivered the NPC to Ramstein AB for training and site activation. “It took a team of teams to get NPC from a concept to operational in under 100 days.”
“I’m impressed with how quickly this idea became a fully functioning system,” said Brig. Gen. Dan DeVoe, 618th Air Operations Center commander. “Our planners and controllers expertly handle aeromedical evacuation missions on a regular basis, but the increase in capability the NPC offers is a great advantage to have available for our operations in the COVID-19 environment and beyond.”
This was a demanding lift as it required use of a brand-new isolation system, multiple stops, and critical care procedures.
“This was definitely not your typical patient movement mission,” said Maj. Benjamin Weaver, bioenvironmental engineer and 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight NPC support team lead. “It was a long 22 hours for everyone involved, but the NPC and team performed exceptionally well to make it happen.”
While on the ground, The 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing at Ramstein AB was essential to the success due to their role in training the NPC personnel, loading the system onto the C-17, and sanitizing the aircraft and NPC for the next mission.
The NPC is certified to fly on a C-17, and testing for certification on the C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft is underway. The NPC-Lite, a smaller variation configured to be used aboard the C-130 Hercules, was certified for operational use on June 25.
“This milestone and the process of getting the system into the hands of our Aeromedical Evacuation teams and aircrew is proof that we can do business at the speed of need,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Mach, AMC Requirements Division chief. “That effort is already saving lives and is crucial to joint readiness in remote locations.”