KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Master Sgt. Ryan McClellan, 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron clinical superintendent and AE specialist at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., was recently recognized for his work during 2020, receiving the Aeromedical Evacuation Crewmember Senior Noncommissioned Officer of the Year Award for the Air Force Reserve Command.
As a member of the 36th AES, a unit within the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing, McClellan is part of a global mission that provides critical care in the air in cases where a patient needs to be transported from an environment with insufficient medical care available to a hospital that can properly care for them.
“The 403rd Wing has a mantra, ‘Wing of Choice,’ and as a unit that is often called upon by AFRC and beyond, we’ve localized that with a mission to be the ‘AES of choice,’” said Lt. Col. Rosalind Johnson, 36th AES director of operations. “(Master) Sgt. McClellan embodies that spirit in his willingness and readiness at all times to volunteer for whatever the Air Force needs.”
For obvious reasons the Air Force’s needs were substantial in 2020, as it was a busy time for medical professionals in all facets. The COVID-19 pandemic presented an especially unique challenge for Airmen in the AE career field as they navigated their care-in-the-air mission through this unprecedented time.
One of the biggest changes came in the form of the Negative Pressure Conex, a flyable isolation unit that allows the safe transport of patients to medical care facilities.
“When the Department of Defense started calling on us to get ready to transfer COVID-19 patients, we were training on the Transportation Isolation System, which was developed for Ebola,” said McClellan. “It was basically a metal frame with transparent vinyl to house patients, and since Ebola was generally pretty quickly contained, it was only designed to hold two to four patients.”
In early April as the instances of COVID-19 infection became more and more concerning across the globe, McClellan was called to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. to be a part of one of the initial crews to start training on the TIS in preparation for COVID patient transferring.
“At that time there was a lot of uncertainty on how serious the pandemic would be, so ultimately the DoD cut down on the amount of crews who would deploy to start transporting patients, and I instead was chosen to be part of a group that stayed at Charleston to participate in the initial testing of the NPCs,” he said.
The group of experienced aeromedical evacuation flyers worked alongside Air Mobility Command leadership to develop procedures to figure out how to incorporate this new device into a mission and safely move patients while also protecting aircrew and aircraft.
“We went through a lot of testing theories to see what worked and what didn’t work and came up with best practices for use,” said McClellan. “Also, there were written procedures for transferring Ebola patients, and we basically took those and, using the information we had at the time, rewrote them for COVID operations.”
From there, considering McClellan and company were the sole experts on the NPCs, the next step was to send the crew all over the globe to train AE units on how to use this new equipment. He said the first stop was Ramstein, where they had been using the TIS.
“We took an NPC, which was made for larger aircraft like C-17’s, and an NPC-Lite, for smaller cargo aircraft like C-130s, to Ramstein and trained the COVID crews and deployed assets there,” he said. “There was also an active duty AE unit there for (U.S. Air Forces in Europe) that we trained before going down to Afghanistan and Al Udeid and training them for their operations in that area of responsibility.
They returned to Ramstein and trained another round of deployers on the NPCs, all the while, taking all of the feedback and suggestions as aircrews began using them in real world situations, finalizing conex operations procedures for future crews to use.
“The biggest takeaway from all of this is that the work we did to establish operations procedures will extend far beyond this pandemic,” he said. “In the event that these need to be used again for anything whether it’s COVID or something else, there is now guidance on how to safely transport patients using them, and looking back at the work we did—despite the circumstances that brought it about--it’s a great feeling knowing I was a part of that.”
McClellan said that while transfer operations like the TIS and now the NPC were not part of the initial AE training curriculum, he could see the work he and the rest of the group did to create guidelines for the NPC being added in the future.
Upon his return to Keesler, the training did not stop. McClellan used his experience to make sure those next up to deploy from the 36th AES were as prepared as possible.
“I thoroughly enjoy this mission,” he said. “I love treating patients and getting to move them from one place to another. The stories that you get from the patients and the relief that they express knowing that you’re there to take care of them and getting them to where they need to go whether that’s to a higher echelon of care or a facility closer to home and to their families. Being able to make this rough day or time in their life just a little bit better for them is a reward in itself.”
He said on the flipside of that coin, while his passion is being part of the crew and administering that crucial care in the air, he realizes that his supervisory role within the squadron is just as impactful.
“It’s great to be able to lead and share my knowledge with the next generation and see their skills and confidence build,” he said. “It’s rewarding to witness as they grow and become able to make quick decisions during missions and really just be able to stand back and pass-the-torch. Even in mission planning and more administrative roles, knowing I’m having an impact on their careers feels good.”