Air Evacuation NursingPosted: May 7, 2015
In 1942, during World War II, a new type of nursing—known as air evacuation nursing—was ushered into the U.S. military forces. Medical teams consisting of flight surgeons, enlisted medical technicians, and flight nurses staffed transport aircraft, which were specially rigged to carry injured soldiers from the battlefield to fully equipped hospitals located away from the front. Air evacuation planes—or “air ambulances” as some called them—often landed in hostile territory and did not bear the familiar red cross, so there was always a real danger that the planes could be shot down by enemy forces.
America’s first “flight nurses” started in the private sector in 1930 when eight professional nurses were hired as stewardesses on passenger transport planes for United Air Lines’ predecessor, Boeing Air Transport (BAT). They initially flew on night flights between San Francisco and Salt Lake City to help relieve travelers’ air sickness or fear of flying. Ellen Church, a nurse from Iowa, was the first stewardess. The nurses’ services proved so successful that the number of stewardesses expanded to 150 by 1933, as did the number and length of cross country flights.
The Army Air Force was the first to initiate air evacuation nursing in 1942. Professional nurses in the Army Nurse Corps could volunteer for special training as “flight nurses.” Flight nurses had to be in top physical condition to withstand the rigors of providing nursing care in flight and learned survival techniques, such as parachuting out of a plane, in the event of a crash. On February 18, 1943, 2nd Lt. Geraldine Dishroon became the first graduate flight nurse at Bowman Field (KY). She served on the first evacuation team at Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion in 1944. Lt. Elsie Ott, a flight nurse graduate of Bowman Field, was the first woman to receive the Air Medal for her service during a historic flight made between India and Washington in 1943.
Roughly 500 Army nurses served as members of 31 medical air evacuation squadrons that operated worldwide during World War II. Seventeen flight nurses, including 1st Lt. Aleda Lutz, lost their lives during the war. Aleda Lutz flew 196 missions and evacuated 3,500 men before her death in an evacuation flight near the front lines in Italy in 1944. 2nd Lt. Ruth M. Gardiner, who served with the 805th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron in the Alaskan theater, was the first flight nurse killed in action on July 27, 1943. The VA medical center in Saginaw, MI, was named after Aleda Lutz in 1990.
Navy’s first class of flight nurses was trained at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, and graduated on January 22, 1945. Jane “Candy” Kendeigh was the Navy’s first flight nurse sent into action when she flew round-trip from Guam to Iwo Jima on
March 3, 1945. Navy flight nurses served throughout the Pacific theater during World War II. Lt. Nancy C. Leftenant was the first African American nurse in the Regular Army Nurse Corps and in 1949 became one of the first black flight nurses in the Air Force.
Since World War II, the types of aircraft used in evacuating injured soldiers have evolved along with advances in technology. During the Vietnam War, “Huey” helicopters were used as a primary means of transporting the wounded, as they were more agile than planes. Today UH-60 “Black Hawk” helicopters are used.
With the advent of the U.S. space program in the late 1950s, the role of flight nurses evolved into a new subspecialty known as “space nursing.“ New terms like “astronaut nursing” or “astro-nursing,” adaptations and studies for delivering nursing care in zero gravity during long space flights came into existence and will continue to change in step with improvements and discoveries made in science and technology.
Flight nurses have always been a special breed of nurses. They have to be. Defying death when mere seconds count is harrowing work and they give their all to beat the Grim Reaper. Today’s flight nurses are courageous men and women who save thousands of lives with the critical first responder care that they provide. They carry forward a legacy that has proven to make a difference in people’s lives for almost a century now. Opportunities for flight nurses are no longer limited to just the military as civilian hospitals, corporations, state and local government employ them as well. Flight nurses put their own personal safety at risk every day to save the lives of others, including wounded men and women of the U.S. military who serve on the front lines protecting America’s way of life.
Photos: top – America’s first nurse stewardesses, 1930, National Air & Space Museum; bottom- Aleda Lutz during an evacuation flight, 1943, National Air Force Museum
Story: VA Historian