This Month in AFMS History: The air transportable “Flying Lung”

  • Published
  • By John Heitz
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
On July 23, 1953, Airman Third Class Warren Beatty of Detroit, Michigan, became the first iron lung patient evacuated by air from the Korean War theater.

Beatty was receiving care for a severe lung ailment on a hospital ship in Inchon Harbor, Korea. To get him back to the U.S. for additional treatment, Beatty and his iron lung were loaded onto a C-54 Skymaster from the 374th Troop Carrier Wing.

First Lt. Shirley G. Warren, a flight nurse, and Staff Sergeant Lawrence Kiger, medical technician, accompanied Beatty on his initial flight to Tokyo. Beatty and his iron lung later flew from Japan to Hawaii, then Hawaii to the United States on a C-97 Stratofreighter.

The Korean War changed how U. S. armed forces moved sick and wounded service members. In World War II, U.S. forces used hospital ships to evacuate most patients to medical facilities in Japan. In the first six months of the Korean War, more than 30,000 casualties were evacuated by air. During the three years of active fighting in Korea, the Air Force provided aeromedical evacuation to more than 300,000 patients.

Traditional iron lung designs were too large to operate effectively onboard aircraft. U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine scientists Syrrel Wilkes and J.F. Tomashefski developed an air-transportable “flying lung” adapted from Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw’s 1928 iron lung design. The device went from drawing board to reality in three weeks. The lightweight design operated from either the plane’s electrical system or a portable 24-volt battery. Two people could carry the “Flying Lung” with its patient inside.

The Air Force “flying lung” was widely used to transport patients during America’s last polio outbreak that reached its peak in the 1950s.