Two U.S. humanitarian aid workers who contracted Ebola while working in Africa were flown from Liberia to Atlanta earlier this month aboard a specially equipped aeromedical Gulfstream III operated by Cartersville, Georgia-based Phoenix Air. Dr. Kent Brantly, who worked for aid group Samaritan’s Purse, was transported to the U.S. on August 2; Nancy Writebol, who worked for ministry SIM USA, was brought back three days later. Both were treated at a specially built isolation unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. At press time Brantly tested negative for the virus and was scheduled for release; Writebol appeared to be recovering.
Registered as N173PA, the former Royal Danish Air Force aircraft is one of a handful of GIIIs–two of which Phoenix Air owns–fitted with a large forward cargo door, which eases patient loading/unloading.
In addition to its extensive onboard aeromedical equipment, the GIII was outfitted with a special aeromedical biological containment system (ABCS)–a tent-like, clear plastic structure that has negative air pressure to keep pathogens from entering the cabin–for the two flights.
Phoenix Air vice president, general counsel and pilot Randy Davis told AIN that his company developed the ABCS in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control several years ago to transport patients with airborne-transmittable diseases. (Ebola is transmittable only via direct contact with bodily fluids.) The system, which is STC’d for Phoenix’s two cargo-door-outfitted GIIIs, was used for the first time ever on the Ebola transfer flights, Davis noted.
Planning for the Ebola patient transfers began in late July after the CDC contacted Phoenix to conduct the flights. “Everything was planned and done with an abundance of caution,” Davis said. Both flights took the same route: for the 11.5-hour outbound from the U.S., the airplane flew from Cartersville to Lajes Air Base in the Azores to Monrovia Airport in Liberia; on the 13.5-hour trip back to the U.S., it flew from Monrovia to Lajes, then to Bangor, Maine, and finally to Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Davis said officials in Lajes forbade them from opening the doors on the ramp on the return trips while they refueled, and the flights cleared U.S. Customs in Bangor “in record time.”
Each of the two flights was crewed by three pilots (a relief pilot took over in Bangor) and three medical personnel. The pilots were not allowed aboard as Brantly and Writebol entered and exited the GIII, nor did they have any contact with either patient, Davis said. Pilots on the missions were Davis, Martin Bel, Darrin Benton, Brian Edminster, Brent Hardy, Henry Hiteshew, Ken Lemelin and Jerry Haag.
Both flights were flawless, said Davis. “Our flight and medical crews conducted successful missions,” he concluded. “What will make them really successful is if both patients walk out of Emory fully healed.”