Oftentimes, when I mention to people that I’m an aviation photographer, they look at me as if I’m either “touched” or some sort of Superman…or both. (Depending on who it is, I’ll let ‘em think that too…just for fun.) Thus it is when I recently mentioned that I was commissioned by AOPA Turbine magazine to photograph a pilot who flies to/from Africa, carrying patients with the Ebola virus.
Upon arrival at the suburban Atlanta airfield, we were treated to a tour of the Phoenix Air facilities by our subject, Mike Ott. Mike is a former Marine aviator, and Naval Academy graduate. Suffice it to say that it was a very thorough briefing about what Phoenix Air does, and to some extent, how they do it. Very impressive operation that is largely self-contained.
As he summed up, we were driven to a separate hangar with the “Ebola plane”. The plane is a modified Gulfstream G3, and well suited for this mission, since it has a very large side door for easy access. The Airborne Biomedical Containment System (ABCS) is, no joke, similar to the large, thick plastic bags that are hung in a closet to store clothes…except on a larger scale.
There is an “antechamber” where a medical technician can enter the unit, zipping up after entry. Once inside, the outside entrance is secured, and the inner portal is unzipped for entry into the patient area.
Even these simple steps are monitored by “clipboard guy”, who is actually one of the more important people involved in the process. You may have seen him on TV reports…he’s the one in shirt sleeves, at the bottom of the stairs. His sole purpose is to make sure that all patient protocols are followed “to the letter”. No room for procedural deviations here.
Two med techs monitor the patient in flight, sitting in seats that face to the rear, so they have direct visual contact with the patient the entire flight. Two others are in nearby forward-facing seats, and everyone periodically swaps positions, so that all remain “fresh” during the flight. Of course, they wear full protective gear when entering the ABCS, as the disease is transmitted through direct contact. Normal vital signs are monitored throughout the flight, with the electrical leads passing through a sleeve outside the chamber to their respective units.
It should be remembered that the ABCS was originally developed in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as an evacuation system for people suffering from the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, which is transmitted through the air. Thus the double HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtration system in the unit; one to draw air into the chamber from the front of the aircraft, passing out through another filter unit at the rear of the chamber, and directly out of the aircraft. I’m told that seven different systems would have to fail before there would be a risk of contamination to the crew. Incidentally, the pilots fly in shirt sleeves.
At no time did I feel the slightest trepidation, as the aircraft is thoroughly de-contaminated after each flight, and the ABCS bag, after decontamination, is burned. It is only used once.
The photos themselves were quickly executed, since Mike was scheduled elsewhere. Not unusual in this line of work.
It’s probably also important to mention that Phoenix Air is the only game in town, when it comes to Ebola evacuations. No other outfit in the world has their capabilities, although I’ve heard that the US Air Force is working on a similar system, but it’s some time away from reality.
UPDATE: Lufthansa just announced a new evacuation aircraft...as of 28 November, 2014.
All in all, just another day at the office. Have I mentioned that I love my job!