San Antonio Express-News
Unlike commercial aircraft, the back of military cargo planes aren’t built for comfort.
They’re cold, loud and dark — hardly the ideal place to provide medical care — but countries around the world depend on them for patient transport.
Now, a San Antonio aerospace company is providing safer and better ways to care for patients in the air. It’s created a module that’s like a mini-hospital for cargo planes, and the Royal Canadian Air Force has used it to save lives around the world.
Port San Antonio-based Knight Aerospace delivered its first Aeromedical Biocontainment Module, basically an airborne emergency room and surgical suite, to the Canadians in early January. So far, it’s flown eight operational missions and transported 14 patients.
The module, which the RCAF calls an Aeromedical Biocontainment Evacuation System — ABES for short — fits inside C-17 and C-130 aircraft and can transport as many as 16 contagious or injured patients, depending on configuration. It can support up to four intensive care unit beds.
In addition to providing a more sterile, well-lit, climate-controlled and soundproofed environment for patients, the module is negatively pressurized to protect others on the aircraft from exposure to infectious disease.
“We have only used the ABES operationally for COVID patients, and it has performed well,” Maj. Cynthia Kent, an RCAF spokeswoman, said via e-mail. “The first mission involved transporting an ill Canadian Armed Forces member back home from an international location.”
She added the service used a CC-177, the Canadian designation for a C-17, for the mission. The other missions, she said, involved transporting ill patients between Canadian provinces.
“The majority of patients we have transported were critically ill and credit should go to the medical staff for providing excellent care and, as a result, preserving life,” she said.
ABES is the first biocontainment module the RCAF has acquired and used, Kent said.
Michael Knight, the aerospace company’s vice president of sales and marketing and grandson of founder Al Knight, said he sees the units represent a step forward.
“People save lives in the back of airplanes all the time, and they’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said. “We’re just looking at an improved way to do it in in a controlled environment.”
Some countries and militaries, including the U.S. Air Force, use retrofitted shipping containers as airborne biocontainment or medical suites. But according to Bianca Rhodes, Knight Aerospace’s president and CEO, those aren’t as safe for patients and aircrew. They often require waivers to fly.
“Our product is built to the same standards that the actual aircraft is built to,” she said. “So we’ve been certified by Lockheed and Boeing and other major aircraft manufacturers as being safe to fly through all phases of flight without any kind of waivers.”
She calls the modules, which cost between $3 million and $50 million, the “Lamborghini of medical suites.”
The self-contained modules lock directly into the floor of the aircraft and tie into the aircraft’s power supply and communications systems. Each features areas for staff, donning and doffing personal protective equipment and patient care. They have lavatories, sanitation stations, disposals for medical waste, blood refrigeration, a safe for controlled substances and running hot water.
“I think one of my favorite days at Knight Aerospace so far is the day they wrote us an email and said they had just brought a family back, repatriated them from the continent of Africa,” she said of her company’s Canadian client. “They had all fully recovered, and there was no question in their mind that the lives had been saved because of the product and how they were able to transport them back to Canada.”
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