Cold War Era

On Valentine’s Day 1986 a USAF FB-111 Supersonic Bomber Transported a Donor Heart from Oklahoma to Connecticut in two hours to save a patient

USAF FB-111 transports a Donor Heart

On Feb. 14, 1986 a 48-year old Pine Plains, N.Y. man received a most unusual Valentine’s Day flight – a new heart – courtesy of the 509th Bombardment Wing. The unique humanitarian mission was flown by FB-111A crew S-03 that transported a donor heart from Oklahoma City, Okla., to Hartford, Conn.

As told by Sgt Stefanie Doner, 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs, in the article Crews make Valentine’s Day delivery, Capt. David R. Lefforge, aircraft commander, and Capt. Steven J. Bruger, radar navigator, both with the 393d Bombardment Squadron, were on a regular training mission when they were rerouted for a life-saving mission. Richard Reinhardt, a patient in Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., desperately needed a heart transplant to survive. A donor heart was available for him, but it was in Oklahoma City, 1,415 miles away. Because there were no commercial or medical aircraft available which were capable of transporting the heart to Hartford in the time required, the US Air Force (USAF) was called upon to assist.

Donor Heart transporter

At 7:22 p.m., one FB-111 and one KC-135 aircraft took off from Pease, heading for Tinker AFB, Okla. An hour later, a second FB-111 departed Pease to serve as backup. Flying at just under 700 miles per hour, not quite the speed of sound, the first FB-111 landed at Tinker. It was 10:35 p.m. (EST). The donor heart was transported from Presbyterian Hospital in Oklahoma City to Tinker. The FB-111, its precious cargo secure on the navigator’s lap, was airborne once more by 3 a.m. The race was on. According to Jim Battaglio, director of communications at Hartford Hospital, four hours or less from the time the donor heart is removed from the donor until it begins beating in the recipient’s chest provides the optimum chance of acceptance of the donor organ by the recipient.

Tony Grossman, left, a reporter from Foster’s Daily Democrat, interviews crew members of the heart transport mission; Capt. Robert Keneally, 509th Bombardment Wing emergency operations controller; Lt. Col. Brent E. Chapman, 509th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 pilot; Capt. Leone G. Atsalis, 509 AREFS KC-135 co-pilot; Lt. Col. Peter L. Greenawalt, 393rd Bombardment Squadron pilot of the FB-111A backup flight; Capt. Steven Gruger, the 393rd BMS FB-111 navigator who held the heart in his lap; and Capt. David Lefforge, 393rd BMS pilot of the FB-111 which performed the transport mission. 

Captain Lefforge said that during the mission, he and Captain Bruger concentrated their attention on the details of their flight plan and transporting the heart.

“It was Valentine’s Day. We had this heart; we were going to save someone’s life,” Captain Lefforge said in an interview after the flight. “After we figured out what it all meant, it was pretty sobering.”

Donor Heart transported in the FB-111 cockpit

“I was sitting there with it (the heart) in my lap,” Captain Bruger added. “We just kind of looked at each other. I know I’ll remember this for a long time.”

Captain Bruger carried the container holding the heart on his lap because it was the only place in the cockpit where the heart could fit. It had to be transported in the cabin of the aircraft because this is the only area which is pressurized.

The FB-111 landed at Bradley Air National Guard Base, East Granby, Conn., at approximately 5 a.m. A helicopter was standing by to transport the heart to Hartford Hospital. From the time the donor heart was removed until it was transplanted, 3 hours, 59 minutes had elapsed.

USAF FB-111 crew members receive a great deal of the credit

While the two FB-111 crew members receive a great deal of the credit, it is also important to note that this “Valentine’s flight” was really a team effort. From Capt. Robert Keneally, 509th BMW emergency actions controller, who took the initial request for assistance in the Pease Command Post, to Col. Dennis L. Cole, assistant deputy commander for operations, who quickly located aircrews available to handle the mission, to the crews themselves, a lot of hard work and careful coordination helped make the mission a success.

A graphic showing the route that the the FB-111 aircraft used to transport the donor heart for the heart transplant traveled.

“Everything just fell into place.” Colonel Cole said. “It was an extremely fortunate set of circumstances.”

“That it all came together on Valentine’s Day,” Captain Keneally commented, “was the strangest thing of all.”

Flying the backup FB-111 were Lt. Col. Peter L. Greenawalt, 393d Bombardment Squadron aircraft commander, and Capt. Charles G. Sherlin, 715th Bombardment Squadron radar navigator. Making up the crew of the KC-135 were Lt. Col Brent E. Chapman, pilot; Capt. Leone G. Atsalis, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. Steven M. Tucker, navigator; MSgt. Edward W. Jackson and Amn. Daniel O. Wells, boom operators, all with the 509th Air Refueling Squadron.

Postscript

Mr. Reinhardt was 48 years old with a wife and two children and was a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. He began suffering heart problems around the age of 43. On Jan. 16, 1986, he was admitted to the hospital and placed on the heart waiting list.

On Friday, Mar. 21, 1986, Mr. Reinhardt was able to shake hands with Capt.’s Bruger and Lefforge at the Hartford Hospital, and the following day he was sent home, five weeks after the surgery.

Mr. Reinhardt spent years taking medication to prevent rejection of his heart, and one of the side effects was an increased risk of cataracts. By 1989, he had already had one cataract surgery and was expecting to have it done on his other eye.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-111F Aardvark 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron, LN/70-2391, RAF Lakenheath, UK, 1991.

Despite the issues following his surgery, Mr. Reinhardt lived 23 years with his transplant heart. He passed away on Apr. 19, 2009, survived by his wife, two children and four grandchildren.

The FB-111

Originally known as the TFX (Tactical Fighter “X”), the F-111 was conceived to meet a US Air Force requirement for a new tactical fighter-bomber. In 1960 the Department of Defense combined the USAF’s requirement with a Navy need for a new air superiority fighter. The USAF’s F-111A first flew in December 1964, and the first production models were delivered to the USAF in 1967.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s F-111B program was canceled. In all, 566 F-111s of all series were built; 159 of them were F-111As.

Although the F-111 was unofficially referred to as the Aardvark, it did not receive the name officially until it was retired in 1996.

An interesting feature of the aircraft was its variable-geometry wings. While in the air, the wings could be swept forward for takeoffs, landings or slow speed flight, and swept rearward for high-speed flight. The F-111 could also fly at very low level and hit targets in bad weather.

The FB-111 was a bomber version of the F-111 Fighter, featuring advanced avionics.

The postscript was added to the story later based on research by 509th Bomb Wing Historian Dee Gullickson.

Photo credit: MSGT. BUSTER KELLUM, Sgt Stefanie Doner / U.S. Air Force and Rene Smith/The Hartford Courant

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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