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Airmen saving lives in New Orleans, Mississippi

LOUIS ARMSTRONG NEW ORLEANS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, La. -- Air Force medics tend to patients awaiting airlift.  C-130 Hercules crews from the 50th Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., teamed up with Airmen from the 452nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to relocate sick and injured patients devastated after Hurricane Katrina.  (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Jon Quinlan)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG NEW ORLEANS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, La. -- Air Force medics tend to patients awaiting airlift. C-130 Hercules crews from the 50th Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., teamed up with Airmen from the 452nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to relocate sick and injured patients devastated after Hurricane Katrina. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Jon Quinlan)

SAN ANTONIO -- Air Force bases nationwide are deploying hundreds of Airmen to Louisiana and Mississippi to save lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Search and rescue missions are under way around the clock to evacuate hurricane victims stranded along the Gulf Coast.

Two 50th Airlift Squadron C-130 Hercules from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., and Airmen from Air Force Reserve Command's 452nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., landed at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on Sept. 3 to relocate sick and injured patients devastated after Hurricane Katrina.

The Joint Task Force-Katrina mission was to evacuate patients to here and to Ellington Field, Texas, where hubs have been established to support evacuation operations.

"Our C-130 has been transformed into a flying ambulance in the sky," said Tech. Sgt. Patrick Carter, a 463rd Operations Support Squadron loadmaster.

As of Sept. 4, the Air Force had moved more than 2,955 aeromedical evacuation patients, transferred more than 15,165 passengers and delivered 4,613 tons of cargo supporting JTF-Katrina, Air Force officials said.

Aeromedical evacuation has been vital in saving lives, said medics on the ground.

"If we don't move fast enough, people are going to die," said AFRC's Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Christa, aeromedical evacuation unit superintendent at the New Orleans airport. "Every (aeromedical evacuation unit) in the Air Force is here to help. We are landing one (cargo airlift) plane here every 45 minutes."

The initial aeromedical unit arrived at the airport Aug. 31.

"At first we worked until we couldn't work. Now we work 16 hours on, then four hours off," Chief Christa said.

"We moved quite a few patients," said Air Force Reserve Maj. Stacia Belyeu, 452nd AES medical crew director. "The patients were lined up in order of precedence."

Patients lined the terminals on litters awaiting transportation and Airmen assessed each patient before loading them onto the C-130s.

"The medical team is great. You can tell they really care," said Capt. Delvin Genenbacher, a 50th Airlift Squadron pilot and aircraft commander. "These people are in an awful situation. We're here to get them out as quickly as possible. We'll do as many missions it takes, no matter how long it takes."

Helicopters from all branches of the military landed every 10 to 15 seconds at the airport bringing in people rescued from New Orleans.

"This was a touching mission to be involved in ... I am just honored to do this," Sergeant Carter said. "If we were in the same situation I'm sure they would do the same thing for us."

In Mississippi, Airmen are also supporting the relief effort.

"We have a tremendous joint effort (among) Guard, Reserve and active-duty Airmen (at Evers Field Air National Guard Base, Miss.)," said Col. Joe Callahan, 347th Expeditionary Rescue Group commander and deployed commander of the 347th Rescue Wing at Moody AFB, Ga. "This is the largest search and rescue mission in the history of the Air Force."

With nearly 450 Airmen on a 24-hour operations schedule at Evers Field, the 347th ERG in Jackson, Miss., has pulled more than 2,700 people to safety in less than a week, said Maj. Todd Worms, a 347th ERG operations officer also from Moody.

"The mission we're providing is absolutely critical to ... all those we've pulled from harm's way," Major Worms said. "And there are many left."

"We're not going home until we've lifted everyone we can," Colonel Callahan said.

Twenty-three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crews are rotating eight day and four night missions.

With each helicopter staying airborne at least eight hours straight, crewmembers are often exhausted when they return to base.

"It's been a really long day but very rewarding," said Maj. Sean Choquette, an HH-60G pilot from Davis-Monthan AFB, N.M. “Although we've encountered total destruction and never-ending obstacles, it's been a fantastic joint effort. Everyone has pulled together nicely."

It has been such a fantastic effort that many Airmen are volunteering to stay longer and work more hours.

"I have several Airmen (who don’t want) to go home," said Captain Giles, whose 41st Helicopter Maintenance Unit only had 12 hours from initial notification to deployment. "These guys know they're playing a crucial role in the relief effort, and (I almost have) to make them stop working and rest. That's the tempo here. Everyone's totally dedicated." (First Lt. Jon Quinlan of the 314th AW public affairs, and Airman 1st Class Tim Bazar of the 347th ERG public affairs contributed to this article.)