Inside one Air Force C-17 crew’s journey to bring COVID-19 test swabs to the US

Inside one Air Force C-17 crew’s journey to bring COVID-19 test swabs to the US

WASHINGTON — After two weeks of conducting clandestine missions in the Middle East, it was time to go home.

But before the C-17 Globemaster crew could make it back to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., they would need to fulfill one last task: Picking up more than 970,000 COVID-19 swab kits at Aviano Air Base in Italy, and transferring them to Memphis, Tenn., where they would be shipped out across the United States to help quell ongoing demand for coronavirus tests.

A C-130 Hercules stationed out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany delivers pallets of medical equipment to Aviano Air Base, Italy, March 20, 2020. (Tech. Sgt. Rebeccah Woodrow/U.S. Air Force)

All told, the journey lasted four days. The crew took off from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on April 1, flying into Ramstein Air Base in Germany before landing at Aviano on April 2. They were on the ground in Italy for only about an hour, enough time for airmen to roll pallets stacked high with plastic-wrapped test kits into the body of aircraft.

The aircrew also picked up more than 970,000 swab kits from Aviano, Italy and flew them down to Memphis, Tenn., where they will be distributed to various sites to be tested for Coronavirus. (Senior Airman Ariel Owings/U.S. Air Force)
The aircrew also picked up more than 970,000 swab kits from Aviano, Italy and flew them down to Memphis, Tenn., where they will be distributed to various sites to be tested for Coronavirus. (Senior Airman Ariel Owings/U.S. Air Force)

Then the crew took off again, flying first to Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire and then finally touching down in Memphis on April 3.

“We were very humbled to be tasked with this mission,” said Capt. Tucker Hawley, a C-17 pilot on the crew. Hawley talked to Defense News on Friday just a mere hour after arriving in New Jersey.

“This isn’t just a pandemic in America. This is a world pandemic. We saw firsthand in all the areas we went to — and living in Qatar for two weeks — everything was shut down everywhere,” he said. “To be able to be asked, ‘Hey, we need you guys to pick up a bunch of cargo at Aviano in support of COVID-19 and bring it back to America to be distributed out to different states’ … we were excited and humbled to be a part of that.”

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