Face of Defense: Pilot Recalls Difficult Decision
By Army Sgt. Neil Gussman
Special to American Forces Press Service
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq, Oct. 6, 2009 Maj. Anthony Meador is near the end of his third tour in Iraq as an Army aviator.
Army Maj. Anthony Meador inspects a maintenance panel near the wheel of a Black Hawk helicopter. Meador is wrapping up his third tour in Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Neil Gussman
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Having served in Baghdad in 2004 and at Joint Base Balad in 2007, he now commands Company C, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, a Fort Wainwright, Alaska, unit attached here to 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment, 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.
During his first tour, Meador served as a medical evacuation pilot during some of the most intense fighting in the war.
"We were slammed in 2004, and in April things got really bad," he recalled. "One night, we evacuated 44 soldiers in two and a half hours on six Black Hawks. We had burns, gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds. … The 2/5 Cavalry got ambushed in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. The whole year was nonstop for all of us."
Meador returned home in 2005 to his wife and his first baby boy, who is now 5. He had almost two years of stateside duty before returning to Iraq with the surge of troops in 2007.
"I was executive officer of a [general support aviation battalion] based in Balad, so I flew every kind of aircraft we had," Meador said. "With the surge, the operating tempo was high.”
His first two tours were filled with high-intensity, around-the-clock operations, the pilot recalled, but the weather was great. "In Baghdad and Balad, the weather was not an issue,” he said. “It was sunny all the time -- no dust storms.” But that’s not the case here.
The intensity of operations here often is lower, Meador explained. "The weather shapes every aspect of our mission planning: weather here, weather at the destination, weather along the route. We are constantly updating our planning based on the weather."
Difficult weather forces tough decisions with medical evacuation flights. One of the toughest decisions for Meador on this tour was whether to fly on July 2.
A call came in from the Adder emergency room. A patient with a pulmonary embolism needed immediate transport to Balad for a type of surgery not available here. Company C would fly the patient to Kut and transfer him to a waiting medevac helicopter for transport to Balad.
Though the first segment of the flight was only about 300 yards -- from the hangars to the emergency room -- that flight was enough for Meador to reconsider the wisdom of flying with visibility less than a half mile in a huge dust storm. Winds were 30 knots, with gusts up to 45 knots. Vertical visibility was 125 feet. To further complicate the flight plan, the patient's condition meant Meador had to fly close to the ground, as pulmonary embolisms are aggravated by altitude.
"We had to stay extremely low anyway,” he said, “because visibility was worse at 1,000 feet. But flying at 50 to 75 feet with power lines and towers is very difficult."
As he flew from the hangar to the clinic, Meador recalled, he told his crew the mission was in jeopardy. "We're going to have another conversation with the physician,” he told them. “I am about 60 to 70 percent sure we are going to cancel this mission.”
Army Staff Sgt. Jason Jones, a flight medic, talked to the physician on duty. The clot was moving toward the patient's lungs and heart, and he would die without surgery at Balad. When Jones confirmed the patient's prognosis, Meador decided to go ahead with the mission.
"When you get a patient on board, you're committed," he said. "Once you leave the airfield with a patient on board, you’re committed to the entire mission."
The flight to Kut usually took 43 minutes, but the weather had something to say about that. "We flew low and slow for an hour and 20 minutes,” Meador said. “The chase bird was at our altitude, flanked right and [close] behind us."
Meador explained the chase helicopter was much closer than the normal following distance, but that the poor visibility made that necessary. "We were coordinating moment to moment throughout the entire flight,” he said. “When one of us would pick up a power line or a tower, we would advise the other right away."
Eighty minutes after takeoff, the crew landed safely and transferred the patient to a waiting medevac helicopter for transport to the Balad medical facility before refueling and returning here. The patient arrived at Balad in time and got the surgery he needed, Meador said.
Meador has served 14 years as an Army Medical Service officer. He is a 1995 graduate of Virginia Military Institute. He and his wife, Margaret, have two boys, 3 and 5. The major calls Galax, Va., home.
(Army Sgt. Neil Gussman serves with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.)