Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD -- Anytime a deployed warfighter tests positive for COVID-19 he or she needs to be transported to a medical facility quickly to avoid affecting more warfighters in the unit. Up until now, commanders have relied on small isolation modules on airplanes or flying infected warfighters in open helicopters with the pilot and medical personnel in personal protective (PPE) ensembles. The U.S. Air Force CBRN Defense Systems Branch decided that there had to be a better way.
In Need of Something New
“The Air Force did not have any good choices at that point. The Transport Isolation System (TIS) already in service has limited capacity and is at the end of its service life, and the State Department’s Portable Bio Containment Module (PBCM) is expensive and would take six months to produce additional units,” said Jason Adamek, a Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center mechanical engineer who helped manage the design, manufacturing and testing of what turned out to be the answer to the problem, the Negatively Pressurized CONEX (NPC) system.
The Air Force jumped into gear in March, establishing a cross-functional team dedicated to rapidly prototyping, testing and fielding a high capacity transport system that could meet the U.S. Transportation Command goal of transporting up to 4,000 diagnosed and symptomatic COVID-19 cases a month at a reasonable cost. The team included the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) and the Joint Project Manager for Protection (JPM-P). The Air Force rapidly established a contract with a vendor to provide the equipment the team was designing. From requirements generation to the request for proposal and contract award to fabricating the first prototype NPC, the entire effort took less than 30 days.
Repurposing an Old Reliable
The approach for the NPC was practical; use an existing, readily available, and entirely dependable container, the CONEX. It was developed during the Korean War to transport and store supplies, and it is now used as a shipping, rail and trucking container for commercial goods around the world. It was even used by the Center as part of the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) it designed and used in 2014 to destroy the Syrian declared chemical weapons stockpile inside a ship at sea. One of the key designers of that system was Adamek.
At 40 feet by eight feet by eight-and-a-half feet, the CONEX is big enough to hold an anteroom and patient area, each separated by an airtight door. The entire container is negatively pressurized using exhaust blowers and high efficiency particulate air filters to keep the virus under engineering controls. Directional flow enables medical personnel to enter and exit through the anteroom. Large enough to serve as a medical suite, it is also small enough to fit in an Air Force C-17 Globemaster. However, the other workhorse of the Air Force is the smaller C-130 Hercules, and the NPC could not fit in it. The Air Force team decided that a second version was needed for the C-130 in order to reach remote bases and replace open-air patient transport. They called it the NPC-Lite and Adamek would play a central role in its development.
It was at that point that the NPC lead engineer, Chip Warder of JPM-P, called Adamek for assistance. “The Air Force had to develop the NPC-Lite in parallel with NPC, but with the proper dimensions to fit inside the C-130. I had worked with Chip on other projects, and with my experience in collective protection and rapid design and fabrication projects, including the FDHS, he knew I could help,” said Adamek. “NPC-Lite is the same as the full-sized NPC in every respect except that it’s only 30 feet long and has 16 seats instead of 30 seats.”
The project kept Adamek very busy from its start in May 2020. As the lead engineer for NPC-Lite, he managed the contractor’s design and fabrication effort over a period of 14 days in Michigan. He then spent three weeks at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina supporting operational testing to get an Air Force flight release for the prototype. To get that release, the NPC-Lite had to be airworthy, and be able to withstand a crash at nine Gs without breaking apart. Following successful testing, he then traveled overseas for a whirlwind five weeks of site activation and training future users. He started at Ramstein Air Base in Germany where a small team fielded the first NPC. Within a week the NPC was flying its first mission evacuating COVID positive patients out of the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. He then moved to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to field the first NPC-Lite and train teams of airmen how to use it inside of the C-130.
More NPC-Lites to Come
With all that work accomplished, his role in this project is far from over. “The plan is to have 25 to 30 NPCs and NPC-Lites made and in operation around the world. I will be performing acceptance inspections, leak and filter testing, and site activation as they arrive at their destinations,” said Adamek.
While the work is grueling at times, Adamek is very proud to be able to serve the nation’s pandemic response effort this way. “It feels great, I love doing rapid development and field engineering in general, but in this case, what we’re doing is truly vital. Each one of these NPC-Lites is going to be used immediately upon fielding because when COVID-19 pops up at small Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) it can be catastrophic. They are not equipped to handle infectious outbreaks. It’s vital that they are able to get infected people out immediately and take them to a proper medical facility that is able to isolate and treat them. The NPC-Lite on a C-130 can reach smaller, more austere bases and FOBs that the NPC on a C-17 can’t,” said Adamek.