The medical team began loading the first of four patients on "litters," or stretchers, onto the plane. One man, critically wounded in an IED blast, was accompanied by a three-person CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team, led by a flight surgeon. This specialist team would stay with him throughout the 270-mile journey to Bagram. Another four ambulatory patients, or "walking wounded," also joined the flight. Before long we were lifting off for Kabul. "Let's see if we can make this comfortable for these guys," Jencks told the flight crew, via his headset, as he carefully managed the airplane's ascent. Later, Jencks described some of the flying challenges posed by AE missions. "With the patients, the priority is care -- the MCD (Medical Crew Director) told me that he wants a soft landing at Bagram, so we're going to try to do everything we can to make that happen."
Speed is also of the essence. "We're flying a little faster than we normally do so that we can get them into a civilized hospital as soon as possible," he said. "We normally do that if we have critical care patients." Bagram, just outside Kabul, is a crucial staging post for seriously injured U.S. troops travelling to the military's state-of-the-art Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southern Germany. Such is the speed and sophistication of this operation that a soldier injured in Afghanistan on Friday could expect to be in Landstuhl by Saturday and in the U.S. by Tuesday. This vast and sophisticated network is overseen by the Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC). As predicted, I was soon able to enjoy the view, something I had been unable to do in the largely windowless cargo hold of the Boeing ( BA) C-17 that transported me to Afghanistan just a day earlier. The arid plain where Kandahar is situated quickly gave way to impressive snow-capped peaks, and in just over an hour we were approaching Kabul, which sits in a natural bowl amid the impressive expanse of the Hindu Kush. As we descended into Bagram, I glimpsed two helicopters far below us firing off flares just beyond the base's perimeter. Moments later we were on the ground. When the plane came to a halt, the two loadmasters quickly lowered the cargo ramp, and the patients were swiftly but carefully transferred to waiting ambulances. The IED victim was off first, accompanied by his CCAT team, his litter packed with medical devices.