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Operation Warp Speed: AFNORTH delivers COVID vaccine via Civil Air Patrol

  • Published
  • By Col. Ann Knabe, Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer

Before the sun rose, two Civil Air Patrol pilots, on mission as the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary for Air Forces Northern and U.S. Northern Command, completed their preflight checklist inside a hangar at Bemidji Regional Airport, Minn. Lt. Col. Robert Bowden and Maj. Rod Rakic knew what was at stake: time-sensitive distribution of COVID vaccine to Native American Tribes in the Midwest.

“The most challenging aspect was weather,” said Rakic, referring to freezing rain and winter fog. “The upper Midwest is experiencing some pretty dynamic weather changes this winter, and the flight had already been delayed by one day.”

The mission on Jan. 6 was part of an interagency agreement between the Civil Air Patrol and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Indian Health Service. Authorized under the Economy Act, the agreement allowed CAP, as an extension of the U.S. Air Force, fly the vaccine inside a 12-hour period to prevent spoilage. Two U.S. Public Health Service pharmacists joined the effort, flying along to monitor the temperatures of the coolers.

Responding to disaster isn’t anything new to these volunteer pilots. Rakic, who’s been involved in CAP since he was 15, flew relief missions during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and deployed as part of a search-and-rescue ground team as part of Joint Task Force Katrina in 2005. Bowden, who also grew up in the CAP community, responded as part of the national crisis team during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. He’s also held leadership roles in search and rescue operations, disaster relief and homeland security missions.

But this was their first flying mission supporting Operation Warp Speed. By 7:45 a.m., representatives from Indian Health Service arrived with their precious cargo, and Bowden carefully secured the coolers with straps inside the Gippsland GA8 Airvan aircraft as Capt. Melissa Opsahl, a USPHS pharmacist, looked on.

Rakic called the plane an “Australian built bush plane,” explaining its versatility and ability to remove seats to make room for cargo. The aircraft was the best option because of the payload’s weight. Rakic and Bowden, from Illinois and Michigan respectively, flew the plane from the Indiana CAP wing two days prior. They had already removed four seats, leaving room for the two pharmacists and coolers in full sight throughout the duration of the flight.

By 8:15 a.m. they were in the air. Before the end of the day, they flew to all three assigned distribution stops in Michigan: first Sault Ste. Marie, then Traverse City, ending with Ann Arbor. At each stop, representatives from Indian Health Service picked up the precious cargo. The pilots rotated roles as “pilot in command” depending on the leg of the flight. The vaccine mission ended at 5:30 p.m. The next day, Rakic and Bowden flew the empty plane back to Indiana.

“CAP saved the day,” said Daniel Frye, Bemidji Area director for Indian Health Service. “We had a large geographic territory to cover with several stops for delivery, and there was an urgent time sensitivity balanced with a need to keep the vaccine between 2-8 degrees Celsius.”  

The CAP’s Bemidji mission was just one of hundreds across the nation in the fight against COVID. At the time of the flight, CAP had logged 36,520 volunteer-days nation-wide while performing COVID relief operations. Relief efforts included: 1,654 units of blood collected, 7.9 million meals distributed, 2.6 million masks produced and delivered, 174,668 test kits transported and 115,800 test samples transported.

In the three weeks following FDA approval, CAP transported more than 7,211 vials of vaccine. More than seven state wings participated in the vaccine mission.

“The sustained effort (COVID relief operations) is longer in duration than any previous CAP mission, including our response to the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.” said Brig. Gen Edward Phelka, CAP’s national vice commander. “Not since World War II has Civil Air Patrol had such an incredibly impactful, long-duration mission in service to the U.S. citizens.”

Rakic explained CAP’s auxiliary missions serve as a force multiplier for the Air Force and Operation Warp Speed. He credits numerous agencies working together for the vaccine mission.

“The mission was coordinated by CAP’s Great Lakes Region,” he explained. “The Indiana (CAP) wing provided the plane that was flown by pilots from the Michigan and Illinois wings. First Air Force led the effort, and Indian Health Service coordinated the final deliveries.”

Acting as a Total Force partner as the Air Force auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol is aligned with First Air Force to rapidly respond to nonmilitary threats domestically when tasked in a Defense Support of Civil Authorities capacity to save lives, relieve suffering, prevent property damage and provide humanitarian assistance.

 “Additionally, we had FEMA and the Region V Defense Coordinating Element helping IHS navigate the process. It demonstrates how people working together can solve complex problems that save lives.”