The Air Force FB-111A Aardvark was designed to fly low and fast over enemy territory and drop nuclear or conventional bombs deep behind lines. But on Valentine’s Day 1986, the bomber, also called “Dark Vark” because of its dark paint, was used for a much less destructive mission. Instead of raining down ammunition, an FB-111A flew a heart transplant from Oklahoma to Hartford, Connecticut to save a 46-year-old New York State resident.
The Air Force was called in because no other means of transportation, not even a private jet, could move the heart to Connecticut in four hours without damaging it, said James Battaglio, a spokesman for Hartford Hospital, to The Associated Press at the time. A heart can survive outside the body for four hours, the spokesperson explained, and it would have taken a private jet at least 3.5 hours to fly the organ to Hartford.
Hospital officials contacted Pease Air Force Base (now Pease Air National Guard Base), New Hampshire, which sent two FB-111As and a tanker to Tinker Air Force Base, New Hampshire. ‘Oklahoma. The mission actually worked well because the two jets were already scheduled for a training flight to Virginia, and the trip to Oklahoma actually cost less and used less fuel, said Lt. Steve Solmonson, a carrier. – Air Force spokesman, to The Associated Press.
It is not uncommon for military aircraft to be used to assist civilians. Whenever there are natural disasters, stranded hikers, or injured sailors, military helicopters and transport planes are often dispatched to help find survivors, transport them to hospitals, and deliver supplies. Air National Guard units, including high-speed jets, report to state governors when not mobilized or under federal control, so they may also be tasked to conduct humanitarian missions.
The FB-111A with the heart departed Oklahoma at 3 a.m. and landed 1,400 miles away at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, about half an hour from Hartford Hospital, around 5 a.m., Solmonson said. The jet flew at around 700 miles per hour – not far off the speed of sound at sea level – and was refueled in-flight by the tanker, the spokesperson explained.
Battaglio, the hospital spokesman, said the recipient, Richard Reinhardt, of Pine Plains, New York, was doing well after the transplant. As unbelievable as the story may seem, this isn’t the only time the Air Force has served as a lightning-fast delivery truck for organ transplants.
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The second story began with tragedy when on December 22, 1986, Michael, the four-month-old son of North Dakota residents Steve and Karen McCann, died. Despite their grief, the McCanns decided to save another baby by donating Michael’s heart, the Air Force wrote in a 2007 press release. 1,400 miles away at Stanford University Medical Center , in northern California, five-month-old Andrew De La Pena needed his own heart transplant. The infant suffered from a condition that caused the membrane lining the chambers of his heart to thicken, interfering with normal heart function, according to United Press International.
A six-person medical team traveled to Fargo, North Dakota in a Lear jet to retrieve the heart, but the deadline was tight. Andrew’s doctors warned his parents, Stephen and Deborah, that the window for a viable transplant was four hours, starting at 11.45pm on December 22 when Michael’s heart was removed in Fargo. The heart was supposed to be flown back to California on the same Lear jet, but one of the jet’s engines failed to start that cold winter night.
“I did about 150, and that was the first time the plane wouldn’t start,” Marguerite Brown, Stanford’s transplant donor coordinator, told UPI. “I hope it will be the last.”
But hope was not lost – nearby were two North Dakota Air National Guard F-4 Phantom fighter jets kept on 24-hour alert ‘in an air defense role, protecting the northern level United States Against Cold War Attacks,” North Dakota. -based 119th Wing wrote on Facebook in 2020. Stanford team leader Dr. Edward Stinson called then-North Dakota Governor George Sinner to help resolve the situation.
“When a governor wakes up at 2:30 a.m., it’s usually something bad,” Sinner told UPI. “I was glad it was something I could actually do something about.”
Indeed, “speed is life” was a popular phrase among F-4 pilots, 119 Wing noted on Facebook, so it probably didn’t take much convincing to put a Phantom pilot on the mission. to deliver a heart across the country as fast as possible. possible.
“It took me 30 seconds to agree to the special flight,” retired Maj. Gen. Alexander Macdonald, who was North Dakota’s adjutant general at the time of the flight, told the Air Force. in 2007. Minutes later, 1st Lt. Robert Becklund, the pilot on duty at Fargo Air National Guard Base, received a call informing him of the urgent mission. Within 30 minutes he and his two-seater jet were in the air, although his weapons system officer had to stay behind so the red and white cooler carrying the golf ball-sized heart could sit in the back seat.
In 2007, when Becklund had risen to the rank of colonel and commanded the 119th Wing, he told the Air Force that being called by the governor “is not an unusual thing…Our assets are at their (the Governors) disposal and we are ready for them to use these assets for whatever is necessary.”
The F-4 Phantom has a cruise speed of 590 miles per hour and a top speed of 1,400 miles per hour, according to the Air Force. With that kind of speed, Becklund made the trip across the country in three hours and 15 minutes, according to UPI. But the troubles weren’t over yet: By then, the heart had been outside a body for seven and a half hours, far longer than the four-hour time limit that most hearts can survive. Andrew’s mother, Deborah, was understandably worried.
“I asked the doctors if they had missed their window of success,” she told the Air Force in 2007. “Dr. Vaughn Starnes, a member of the transplant team, looked at me in my eyes and said, “It’s going to work”, and it worked.
Andrew had a steady pair of hands overseeing the operation. Dr. Norman Shumway, who in 1968 performed the first successful human heart transplant in the United States, also performed Andrew’s operation. It was the longest time a donor heart had been successfully taken out of a body and transplanted, Shumway told UPI at the time. The 13-pound, five-month-old baby went on to lead a healthy lifestyle, becoming a varsity swimmer and senior class president in high school and attending Loyola University in Louisiana, according to the Air Force’s 2007 press release. By 2018 he had survived two battles with cancer, traveled the world and got married.
“I am grateful to everyone involved and there is not a pulse that runs through my veins that does not appreciate the gift they have given me,” he said.
Special thanks to unofficial Air Force subredditwhere this reporter first heard about the F-111 heart transplant mission.
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