TAMPA (FOX 13) - They're trained to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield, but they are now flying humanitarian missions -- airlifting the sick and injured victims of Hurricane Maria from now-isolated islands like Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Croix.
The fleet of Air Force cargo planes from bases all over the country is roaring out of MacDill Air Force Base. They're huge air ambulances, packed with stretchers and lifesaving equipment.
Monday, flight nurse Gavril Goodman was ready to go again, even after a mission to St. Croix where they had expected to pick up 40 patients.
"As soon as we landed they were like there are 20 extra patients for you, and maybe more,” she recalled.
In the end, more than 60 patients and their families came on board -- the most of any Air Force medial flight since Hurricane Katrina. Many were dialysis patients.
"If they don't get that, they die,” she continued. “We save lives, I believe so."
They're staging at MacDill because of its location and because it’s home to the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. They airlift wounded from the battlefield to hospitals. But they also mobilize when natural disasters strike, like Hurricane Maria.
Many of the Air Force reservists work as nurses and other healthcare jobs on the outside. They have a very challenging mission now, and don't know exactly how long it will last.
It’s an especially urgent personal mission for Maria Ayala. She hasn't heard from family members in Puerto Rico, so she hopes the next flight takes her there.
"Right after it went by, I started calling people; nobody answered. And text messages; nobody answered,” she said. "The only thing I’ve been thinking is that I’ll see them coming to the plane, and I’ll be able to help them and take them out of the island.”