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Illinois Air Guard C-130s join the fight against COVID-19

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Evan Spotloe, foreground, a loadmaster, and Staff Sgt. Seth Johnson, a flight engineer, both with the 169th Airlift Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, help load medical isolation pods into a C-130H Hercules in Eugene, Ore., April 8, 2020. Two 182nd Airlift Wing C-130 aircrews airlifted 250 isolation pods in a cross-country overnight homeland defense mission delivery to Chicago for use in an alternate medical facility.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Evan Spotloe, foreground, a loadmaster, and Staff Sgt. Seth Johnson, a flight engineer, both with the 169th Airlift Squadron, Illinois Air National Guard, help load medical isolation pods into a C-130H Hercules in Eugene, Ore., April 8, 2020. Two 182nd Airlift Wing C-130 aircrews airlifted 250 isolation pods in a cross-country overnight homeland defense mission delivery to Chicago for use in an alternate medical facility.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Devin Ralston from the 182nd Airlift Wing, based out of Peoria, Ill., places mattresses in treatment cubicles at an alternate care facility at the McCormick Place Convention Center in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago, April 11, 2020.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Devin Ralston from the 182nd Airlift Wing, based out of Peoria, Ill., places mattresses in treatment cubicles at an alternate care facility at the McCormick Place Convention Center in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago, April 11, 2020.

EUGENE, Ore. – What could have been a three-day trek across 2,150 miles of interstate highway was shortened to overnight delivery by Air National Guard C-130H Hercules aircraft joining Illinois’ fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two aircrews assigned to the 182nd Airlift Wing departed their Peoria air base for the West Coast April 7 to pick up and transport 250 medical isolation pods from the Oregon manufacturer to Chicago Midway International Airport the next day. The negative-pressure tents are for use in an alternate medical facility assembled inside Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. Transporting them fit the C-130’s tactical airlift mission set, which allows for a wide variety of oversized cargo and flexible design configurations.

“[The C-130] is the workhorse of the fleet. It’s been reliable since the 1950s, and our crews and our maintenance professionals are the best in the business,” said Air Force Maj. Justin Childers, a C-130H mobility pilot with the 169th Airlift Squadron who flew on the airlift mission. “We got the people there, we got the airplanes ready to go, and we went off and executed it. The Guard motto about ‘Always Ready’ is absolutely true.”

The pods are sealed cubicles with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems, said Nathan Neckles, a sales manager with the pod manufacturer. The pods will allow medical professionals to work with patients in a contained space using cleaned, recirculated air, helping prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

Childers said that while airlift and airdrop is what they do every day, such a high-visibility operation is not as common.

“It felt really good just to know we’re helping get those supplies, so that if this thing spikes, [Illinois] can be more prepared for it,” he said. “I’m glad we got to go do it. I really am.”

While the Air National Guard operates for the war fight and security cooperation with foreign allies, its primary mission is to support homeland operations at the direction of the governor and adjutant general.

“We fight America’s war, but as the National Guard, we’re also here for our communities,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, in an April 8 interview with Chicago’s WBBM-TV. “So, this is the most rewarding mission we could possibly have, is to help our neighbors when they’re in need.”

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