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This Month in AFMS History: Lt Elsie Ott and the First Official Aeromedical Evacuation Flight

  • Published
  • By Judith Taylor, Senior Historian
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
In January 1943, 2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott, a 29-year-old Army nurse with barely a year of military service, took on a mission to demonstrate the value and feasibility of aeromedical evacuation. Ott, serving in Karachi, in what was then India, was selected to escort five seriously ill patients from India to Walter Reed Hospital near Washington, DC.

The mission was unprecedented in scope and challenge, but Ott’s successful completion of the mission helped pave the way for further innovation in aeromedical during World War II and beyond.

In 1942, General George Marshall directed all theater commanders to utilize air assets from the newly created Air Transport Command (ATC) for aeromedical evacuation of serious medical cases.  The Surgeon General of the Army and his Chief of Transportation were skeptical that airplanes could play a significant role in evacuating patients to the U.S.

Although Air Transport Command deemed itself far from ready to undertake an ambitious program of intercontinental air evacuation, Army medical authorities at the 159th Station Hospital in Karachi decided to test this application of aeromedical evacuation. 

On January 16, 1943, Second Lieutenant Ott got orders to leave Karachi for the U.S. within 24-hours. She would escort two litter patients and three ambulatory cases. Ott had never before flown in an airplane and no flight surgeon screened the patients prior to take-off. Ott had no special instructions or medical supplies for her patients. She gathered up a few dressings and medicines from the hospital ward at Karachi, which also furnished two cots, mattresses, and blankets. The Medical Department assigned a staff sergeant who had been a recent patient in the Karachi hospital with chronic arthritis as a medical attendant.

Early on the morning of January 17, a DC-3 transport lifted Ott and her five patients from the runway at Karachi. Once in the air, Ott found that her patients represented just about every possible medical condition.  The two litter cases were paralyzed in their lower extremities and the three ambulatory cases respectively had early active tuberculosis, manic depression (considered non-violent for the trip), and glaucoma.

The DC-3 made stops in Saudi Arabia, Khartoum, Sudan, and Maduguri, and ended its trip at Accra on the evening of January 20. For the flight from Accra, the group boarded a C-87 Liberator. Mattresses in the aisles accommodated the two litter patients. After making four more stops, the C-87 landed at Morrison Field in Florida on January 23. The next day, Ott and her wards flew to Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., where medical attendants met the patients and transferred them to Walter Reed Hospital. 

"The future success and development of air evacuation rested in the hands of Lt Ott during those seven days,” stated an Army Air Corps officer. "Had she failed it would be difficult to regain the lost confidence of all concerned."

When locals charged her patients for their meals at each stop, Ott personally paid for those who had no money. She arranged for further air transportation at Accra and West Palm Beach and secured such personnel comfort for the patients as "could be obtained from en route medical facilities, none of which had been alerted to care for the transient patients.”

Although personally exhausted when she reached Bolling Field, Ott was enthusiastic about the potential of air evacuation. In less than a week, she moved her patients 11,000 miles, nearly halfway around the world. This saved them at least 3 months of arduous surface travel. Ott requested assignment to air evacuation duty, and in recognition of her meritorious achievement, she received the first Air Medal ever awarded to a woman in the history of the U.S. Army.

Soon after the flight, Ott learned of the new flight nurse program at Bowman Field, KY and applied immediately. After graduation, she returned to India to serve with the 803rd Medical Air Evacuation Squadron.  Ott was discharged in from the Army in 1946, with the rank of Captain.