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C-141 flies last mission from combat zone

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFPN) -- For the last time in its long career, a C-141 Starlifter aircraft will fly military patients out of a war zone Sept. 30.

The flight from Iraq will end a five-day mission to the Middle East for the airlift plane from the 445th Airlift Wing here. The aircraft first started airlifting the sick and wounded from combat zones more than 40 years ago in Southeast Asia.

The Starlifter took cargo to Europe before its historic last mission out of the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Medics will continue their aeromedical role on other types of aircraft, such as the C-17A Globemaster III or C-5 Galaxy.

“Many of our missions aboard the C-141 were to Vietnam in the 60s and early 70s to carry patients and human remains back -- just as we do now,” said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Hays, the wing’s chief loadmaster.

“I will really miss the plane and the mission as I will be retiring with the airplane,” the chief said. “Since this is the only thing I’ve done for 36 years, it has been my life. I will miss it immeasurably.”

Wing reservists began flying C-141 aeromedical evacuation missions in support of the Global War on Terrorism more than two-and-a-half years ago. In the beginning, the aircraft flew an average of six to seven times a week.

To keep up the pace, the 459th Airlift Wing from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and the 452nd Air Mobility Wing from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., joined the fray with their C-141s. However, two years ago the Andrews AFB unit converted to KC-135 tankers. By the end of last year, the March ARC unit was down to a handful of C-141s in preparation for receiving C-17s.

The 445th AW is the last C-141 operational wing in the Air Force and it is converting to C-5s. The first of 11 C-5 Galaxy aircraft will arrive Oct. 3 -- three days after the last C-141 OIF mission is scheduled to land back at Wright-Patterson.

“I’m looking forward to flying a larger aircraft,” said 1st Lt. Eric Palichat, a 356th Airlift Squadron pilot. The lieutenant was activated in February 2004 and has flown into Iraq more than 30 times on aeromedical missions.

“We’ll miss the C-141, but I’m looking forward to flying missions on the C-5,” he added. “I just wish we were getting more of them.”

Since 2002, C-141s have flown more than 2,000 combat sorties and moved more than 70 million pounds of war-fighting material.

More importantly the aircraft have transported more than 70 percent of the sick, injured or wounded out of the Middle East. The 445th AW has been flying these missions four times a week for the past year. Reservists supporting this life-saving mission from aircrews to maintenance, aerial port and life support members will deactivate soon after the last OIF mission. A few will then be activated to support other aircraft types.

After Sept. 30, wing aircrews will continue flying C-141s, mostly inside the borders of the continental United States, until spring of 2006 when the last C-141 will fly out of the Air Force inventory and into aviation history books.

“The C-141 has proven its aeromedical evacuation role through the test of time,” said Tech. Sgt. Larry Davis, an 445th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron aeromedical technician.

“We’ll be training primarily on C-130s now,” he said. “Good aircraft but they don’t hold as many patients as a C-141. The C-17 will be more comfortable for the patients, but it will have to prove itself.” (Courtesy of AFRC News Service)

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