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COVID response: DOD, Academia partner to conduct aircraft airflow testing in Nebraska


In an effort to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak and to continue executing rapid global mobility operations, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command sent multiple airframes to participate in particle and airflow testing at Nebraska Air National Guard air base, Nebraska, April 4-11, 2020.

The weeklong test brought active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard components from AMC together to preserve the nation’s operational capability to meet its global mobility requirements, which starts with protecting the force.

“United States Transportation Command expressed a joint, urgent, operational need request for high-capacity airlift of COVID-19 passengers,” said Maj. Dave Sustello, AMC Test and Evaluation Squadron operations officer.

Air Mobility Command, in coordination with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, spent the week at the 155th Air Refueling Wing examining airflow and particles to assess ways to eliminate risk to aircrew. The first set of airflow tests were conducted on the KC-135 Stratotanker, C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Hercules aircraft, followed by tests on the KC-46 Pegasus, KC-10 Extender and C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft.

“[We’re] evaluating different air frames for the ability to transport potentially symptomatic patients safely while protecting aircrew and medical personnel,” said Dr. Joshua Santarpia, UNMC Microbiology and Pathology associate professor. “[To do this, we’re] looking at what happens to particles produced by people and how they might move around the airframe.”

Experts from multiple scientific fields used a method of dispersing aerosol DNA tag beads during the testing process, a concept Santarpia invented two years ago.

After the beads were released, multiple tests were performed in the air and on the ground. These included taping off and numbering small areas of the aircraft’s floor to capture surface samples.  

“Basically, we run multiple tasks on an airframe to understand if bead one, released at the rear of the aircraft, made it up to the front; or if bead two, released in the middle of the plane, [made] it up to the front of the aircraft,” said Dillan Cunningham, NSRI Special Projects and Extensive Field Sampling Expertise director. “We can look at their spread in real-time … to make sure that they are representative of a particular size of interest relative to the spread of different potential infectious substances.”

Cunningham cited understanding the airframe’s aero dynamics–the airflow–as vital to minimizing infectious molecule spread within the aircraft. This includes directing airflow to segregate the cabin and crew to minimize exposure.

“The best potential way to achieve success of this mission is understanding the best configuration to transport personnel, service men and women, and everyone else back home for treatment without potentially infecting everyone, endangering other people and putting undue risk and burden on the crew,” Cunningham said.

Sustello credited UNMC and all the entities that took part in supporting this mission to preserve and protect the health of the mobility force.

“This was world-class support,” Sustello said. “Anything and everything that we've asked for they've been able to provide, and I'm seeing that that Nebraska work ethic shine through.”

The 155th ARW was selected for the high priority mission because of the proximity of the airbase, allowing multiple aircraft to fly in and remain on the ramp space provided.

“The testing that took place this week is all about mitigating the risk to our Airmen while providing combatant commanders around the world with the capability to rapidly repatriate personnel who are either infected or exposed to COVID-19,” said Col. John Williams, 155th Air Refueling Wing Operations Group commander?. “The research is not just applicable to the current outbreak. The lessons learned here in Nebraska will be valuable to future operations as well.”

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