On March 18, an Airbus A330 Phénix multi-role tanker/transport of the Armée de l’Air (AA, French air force) conducted a medical evacuation flight to airlift six coronavirus patients to relieve pressure on the hospitals of the saturated Grand-Est region. The aircraft deployed from its base at Istres, near Marseille, to ferry the patients from the joint French-Swiss Basel-Mulhouse airport back to Istres for ground transport to the Laveran army training hospital near Marseille and Sainte-Anne hospital in Toulon.
Operated by Escadron de Ravitaillement en Vol et de Transport Stratégique (air refueling and strategic transport squadron) 1/31 “Bretagne”, the Phénix was outfitted in the “Morphée” configuration, one of the three available for aeromedical missions.
Morphée (Module de Réanimation pour Patient à Haute Élongation d’Évacuation) provides beds and the necessary resuscitation and oxygen equipment for the long-haul evacuation for up to 12 intensive-care patients. The rear cabin retains 88 standard passenger seats. A crew of between six and 12—depending on flight duration—operates the aircraft and supports 12 medical staff from the Service de Santé des Armées (SSA, defense health service).
This kit is also available for the AA’s Boeing C-135FR tankers and has been operational since 2006. It was used for the first time in Kosovo in 2008 and has subsequently been employed on four further occasions, including evacuations from Afghanistan, but this is the first case of domestic use.
The Phénix fleet is assigned to the Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (strategic air forces) with a primary mission of supporting the ASMP-armed Rafales that provide France’s airborne nuclear deterrent. However, secondary missions such as strategic transport, deployment support, and peacetime refueling training take up most of the aircraft's' time. The fleet was brought in as part of the French health ministry’s coronavirus response strategy to reduce pressure on hospitals in the most-affected areas.
In addition to the Morphée configuration, the Phénix can be rapidly outfitted with two stretchers by removing passenger seats in the forward cabin in the “configuration d’opportunité,” which leaves 256 passenger seats unaltered. A more extensive adaptation is the CM30 configuration, in which the cabin is reconfigured with 20 bunkbed-style stretcher stations for transporting up to 40 heavily wounded patients. As is the case with Morphée, installation of the CM30 kit leaves 88 passenger seats in the rear cabin.