Crews make Valentine’s Day delivery

  • Published
  • By Sgt Stefanie Doner
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

A 46-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 took place Feb. 14, 1986 as FB-111A crew S-03 transported a donor heart from Oklahoma City, Okla., to Hartford, Conn.

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 Air Force was called upon to assist.

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.

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.

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."

"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.

"We were fortunate," said Col. Thad A. Wolfe, 509th Bombardment Wing vice commander. "First, we were fortunate to have crews and aircraft prepared to launch on their routine training mission, and second that we had aircraft capable of meeting the tight time requirements involved. The wing is extremely proud of the crews’ effort and of those people who facilitated a quick decision to get us involved."

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 cews themselves, a lot of hard work and careful coordination helped make the mission a success.

"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.

In a message to the wing commander, Lt. Gen. Kenneth L. Peek Jr., 8th Air Force commander, commended the wing on its humanitarian actions.

"I want to extend my personal appreciation to you and your staff for your timely action to support the emergency medical airlift request Feb. 13. Your recognition of the opportunity to be a good neighbor benefits not only the recipient of this precious gift of life, but also indicates an attitude of caring and community involvement representative of the best of the Air Force. Again, my congratulations for a job well done."

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. 16th, 1986, he was admitted to the hospital and placed on the heart waiting list.

On Friday, March 21st, 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.

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

This story has been republished from a story originally published in 1986. It has been edited for spelling and grammar and to ensure compliance with current Associated Press style. The postscript was added to the story later based on research by 509th Bomb Wing Historian Dee Gullickson.