EGLIN AFB — A fast-track effort to provide air transport for U.S. military personnel in light of the serious COVID-19 respiratory illness spreading across the globe has been given an initial green light by teams including two units at Eglin Air Force Base.

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Military and civilian personnel from Detachment 2 of the Air Force Operation Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) and the 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron (28th TES), part of the Eglin-based 53rd Wing, recently tested a prototype Negatively Pressurized Conex (NPC). The NPC is a container designed to fit inside the C-17 and C-5 military aircraft to enable the safe transport of as many as 24 patients, and teams of medical professionals, around the globe.

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Briefly, the NPC works like a hospital isolation room, where air is pulled in and then filtered before it is moved outside. The Department of Defense and the Department of State have had a couple of somewhat similar units in service since 2014, but the new NPC dramatically increases the capacity of such facilities.

In addition to the local military connection to testing the NPC, one of the contractors involved in the $2 million prototyping effort is Fort Walton Beach-based UTS Systems. The two other contractors are Michigan-based Highland Engineering, Inc., and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines’ Delta Flight Products.

The prototype NPC, a converted 40-foot shipping container, was delivered in April, just two weeks after the contract was awarded. It was delivered to South Carolina’s Joint Base Charleston, where teams from AFOTEC and the 28th TES, along with other military and medical teams, evaluated the unit.

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Within a matter of days, the evaluation team had verified that the NPC had successfully demonstrated “proof of concept.”

“It’s never been done this fast before,” said Maj. Phillip Hoyt, AFOTEC Detachment 2’s CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) branch chief. Other AFOTEC Detachment 2 personnel involved in the NPC assessment are Capt. Dustin Taylor, Capt. Sean Coates and Robert Cooper.

“This is not normal testing in any environment,” said Capt. Conor Favo, Agile Combat Support division chief for the 28th TES.

But, Favo added, even with the compressed time scale, “we didn’t compromise our test methodology.”

The 28th TES jumped immediately on the job when called to Joint Base Charleston. In addition to Favo, the 28th TES team included Lt. Angelyn Colon-Cordero, Scott Matheson, Neal Riemer, Victor Arca, Dallas Cook and Joel Huddleston.

“We had two vans,” Favo said. “We threw everything in them.”

Even before the evaluation team got to Charleston, work on the evaluation was proceeding.

“There were calls while we were driving up to Charleston,” Favo said.

In the end, according to Hoyt, the work was done in “a nine-day span that would normally be months.”

Hoyt is no stranger to this type of work, having been involved in a similar effort in connection with the Ebola virus outbreak that began in 2014 and continued for two years.

“We were learning new things about Ebola every day,” Hoyt said. Noting the differences between the transmission of Ebola and COVID-19, Hoyt said, COVID-19 is “a lot more readily transmissible through the air.”

The fast-track development of the NPC is the result of a Joint Urgent Operational Need assessment from the U.S. Transportation Command.

As just one example of where and how the NPC might be needed, 1st Lt. Savannah Bray, public information officer for the 53rd Wing, noted the possibility of a call to extract American military personnel from a location where no COVID-19 testing is available, meaning that those personnel could have the disease and would need to be isolated from aircrew members.

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Broadly speaking, Favo said, the around-the-clock evaluation of the NPC included more than a half-dozen assessments to ensure that COVID-19 was contained within the unit. Also assessed as part of the evaluation were the usability of the NPC for medical teams and its airworthiness and safety for flight.

There were some observations noted in the initial evaluation that can improve the NPC, Favo said. That data has been forwarded to Air Mobility Command, and once addressed, AFOTEC Detachment 2 and the 28th TES will reassess the NPC.

Following successful review of the NPC, the UTS/HEI/Delta team “expects to deliver 25 units in the coming months, with the opportunity for an additional 50,” according to a news release on the project.

The news release also quotes UTS Systems CEO Tom Eggers, who said, “We are thrilled to work with HEI and Delta on this innovative, mission-tailored solution ... . UTS is proud to play a small part in protecting those who protect us."

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