By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterNovember 22, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- In the early years of Army Aviation, the versatility helicopters brought to the Army wasn't fully realized, but as the years went on and the aircraft evolved, the flexibility of the Army's rotary-wing fleet became a driving force in how the Army operates.
One vital mission of Army Aviation is aeromedical evacuation, which is carried out by the U.S. Army Air Ambulance Detachment, or Flatiron. And although aircraft evolved throughout the years, the MedEvac mission remains the same -- to help save lives, said George Baum, former MedEvac pilot and Flatiron commander.
Although the first aircraft used for medical evacuation was a British air ambulance, de Havilland DH9, in 1917, the first helicopter used for MedEvac was in World War II, said Baum.
"The Army had just received their first helicopter, the Sikorsky YR-4B," he said. "They were used for observation. However, in April 1944, an allied aircraft was forced down behind enemy lines in the Burma jungle."
Baum said that there were three casualties of the crash and it took two days for the MedEvac to transport them out, having to do so one person at a time, given that the helicopter had limited lift capabilities. Although MedEvac was utilized in World War II, it wasn't until the Vietnam War that aeromedical evacuation really made history, he added.
"The (then) surgeon general knew from the Korean War experience that the Medical Corps needed an aircraft that they could transport their patients inside where they could receive medical aid," said the former Flatiron commander. "As a result of that need being fulfilled, the UH-1 Huey helicopter was born."
The 57th Medical Detachment arrived in Vietnam in 1962 during the height of the conflict and was the first UH-1 helicopter unit in the war. Between Sept. 25, 1967, and July 31, 1968, six helicopters flew 8,644 missions and transported 21,431 patients, said Baum.
It was during the Vietnam War that the term DUSTOFF was coined, which stood for Dedicated Unhesitated Service to our Fighting Forces, a term still in use today. The most common call sign for today's air ambulance detachment is Flatiron.
"(The unit) got its name when they started using helicopters to go out and pick up downed training aircraft," said the former MedEvac pilot. "They were required to have one helicopter running during peak Aviation training periods.
"A person made the comment that it reminded them of back in the day when one flatiron was always being heated while the other was being used to iron a piece of clothing," he said. "The ironer did not have to wait for the iron being used to be reheated -- they always had a 'hot' iron -- Flatiron aircraft were always hot."
Although the MedEvac unit still goes by Flatiron, the practice of "one always on" is no longer in practice today.
Today, Flatiron utilizes Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks in its fleet because of the aircraft's size, power, speed and flight capability. The aircraft can carry much larger loads, as well as medical equipment, and medics aboard the aircraft are trained paramedics, which has greatly increased survival rates, said Baum.
"This is the perfect aircraft for our combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan," said the former Flatiron commander. "The power of the Black Hawk allows it to perform well in the high mountains … and the time between the wounded Soldier pickup and the medical facility has been reduced greatly by the speed of the Black Hawk.
"We have come a long way from (the) Sikorsky YR-4B over the jungles of Burma … to the (Black Hawk), a flying ambulance," he said. "The helicopter has truly proven itself on the battlefield, both in moving troops and saving lives."
Baum spent much of his career as a MedEvac pilot and said it was one of the most rewarding times of his life. He currently works as a volunteer at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum.