Locals watching the national news coverage of the evacuation of two Americans infected with the Ebola virus spotted it right away. That was a Gulfstream jet that touched down at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta last week, bringing the humanitarian aid workers to Emory Hospital in Atlanta.
But it wasn’t just any Gulfstream jet. It was a modified Gulfstream GIII, one of three GIIIs owned by Phoenix Air Group, an airline that – until recently – specialized in flying under the public’s radar.
With some 40 uniquely equipped airplanes and contracts with multiple federal departments and agencies
– including the Centers for Disease Control – the company based approximately 35 miles northwest of Atlanta at tiny Cartersville-Bartow County Airport was the logical choice for the delicate transport.
“Unusual assignments are really the norm for us,” said Phoenix spokesman Dent Thompson. “But we’re more than an air cargo company – we’re a solutions company. We like to think we specialize is figuring out how to get things done.”
An FAA-certificated Part 135 airline with worldwide operating authority, Phoenix Air provides executive and group passenger service, worldwide air ambulance service and high priority air cargo service – including the transport of explosives and dangerous goods.
Its military contracting wing – called the Phoenix Force – is the world’s leading provider of contracted airborne electronic warfare and weapons training/testing services for the United States Department of Defense, NATO and foreign military forces. The company also operates a flight school and general aviation at its home airport.
The GIII that brought Dr. Kent Bradley and Nancy Writebol of the aid group Samaritan’s Purse home to the United States was originally owned by the Royal Danish Air Force. It is one of a handful of GIII’s fitted with a large forward cargo door, which eases patient loading and unloading.
In addition to previously installed extensive aeromedical equipment, this GIII is outfitted with a biological containment system specifically designed for patients with highly contagious diseases.
“We’re contracted by both the CDC and the Defense Department to provide transport and in-air medical services for people coming back into the country infected with such things as tuberculosis, SARS, Bird Flu and now Ebola,” Dent said.
To do that, the interior of the GIII has a tent-like, clear plastic structure that has negative air pressure to keep pathogens from entering the cabin.
“It’s what we call an ABC – or Aeromedical Biological Containment – system,” Dent said.
It’s essentially a room within the interior cabin with an outer, airlock chamber that allows our medical people to be in and out during the entire flight.”
“This system can’t be put in any other aircraft – it’s designed for the Gulfstream,” he said.
And, yes, Phoenix has its own medical division, with doctors, nurses and paramedics.
In addition to 16 Gulfstream jets ranging from GIs to GIIIs, Phoenix Air owns 20 Lear jets and three 30-passenger Embraer jets.
“Our GIIIs are by far the largest and most versatile planes we own,” he said, adding that his company has a close relationship with Gulfstream in Savannah.
Indeed, Phoenix Air was awarded the Gulfstream Aerospace Alber-Rowley Trophy in 2010 for a year-long series of flights by a single Gulfstream III in support of the U.S. Africa Command.
“The aircraft flew nearly 400,000 miles over 900 hours, visiting 45 countries in Africa and the Middle East in demanding and sometimes harsh operational environments,” Gulfstream said in its award presentation.
In the last month alone, Phoenix Air’s GIII air ambulances have been deployed to such exotic locales as Taiwan and Perth, Australia. They have made four trips to China and two to the Middle East.
But Phoenix Air does more than transport critically ill patients.
“For example, we have one Gulfstream that’s stationed in Hawaii in support of government scientists, biologists and other employees who study endangered species on remote Pacific Islands.
“That’s the assignment everyone wants,” he said, laughing