|By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Waiting for tragedy is an edgy occupation, and Chief Warrant Officer Michael Turner, an Army medevac pilot, probably doesnt need a fourth cup of coffee before lunch.
He smiled at the thought as he sipped. Every time his pager went off, his heart skipped a beat.
"Im high speed," he said.
Thats probably a good thing, since Turner flies an airborne Army ambulance. Hes pulling a 24-hour stand-by shift with the 68th Medical Detachments emergency airlift team, the unit everyone simply calls MAST, for Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic. If the call came right now, he and his four-member team would be off the ground in eight minutes.
With an average of 17 missions a month, the 68th has the most active MAST program in the world, addressing anything from automobile accident victims to injured hikers to transporting patients from one hospital to another.
The 100-person unit, based at Wheeler Army Air Field, uses the missions to augment its combat readiness. Every day one of its nine helicopters is fueled and ready to go.
It is a valuable service, especially for emergencies on the North Shore and the Leeward Coast, where the thunder of an approaching UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter is a welcome sound. It is all done free of charge.
Each flight back can be a heart-thumping event in helicopters that normally cruise at 120 knots.
"When I have a patient I go 135 knots," Turner said. "If it is super-urgent, Ill push it to 150, which is the max we can do. That is if the patient is critical."
Sometimes it isnt possible to be fast enough.
"Some days we get lucky enough to get there on time," said Chief Warrant Officer Gerald Stanford, the other pilot in Turners crew. "Some days we dont."
Sgt. Fitz Dickson is the crews medic. He likes the excitement of not knowing what to expect. On a typical mission, hell follow the patient into the hospital, trying to calm the conscious ones.
The crew pulls a 24-hour shift once every five days, but that tempo will increase to once every three days in April, when other members of the detachment travel to the Mainland for training.
The 38-year-old Turner has been in the Army for 18 years, most of that time flying helicopters. He flew assault missions during the Persian Gulf War, "moving beans and bullets and bodies."
The medevac mission is tough on families. Pilots joke about AIDS, for Aviation Induced Divorce Syndrome.
"They hate it," Turner said of his wife also an Army pilot and their two children. "Its difficult for them to understand and deal with the amount of time we have to be here."
Accommodations for the crews are spartan. They use an empty office to sleep in. Calling their squeaky mattresses beds is generous.
"If you have no missions during the day, its like going home without the amenities," Turner said. "If you have worked during the night, up every two hours, youre beat by the time you go home."
But they sleep well, and being tired isnt the only reason.
"If you know youve contributed to saving somebodys life, its the best mission you could have," Turner said. "Its the most rewarding."
Mike Gordon reports on military affairs. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8012.
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