On the morning of December 22nd, 1986; Fargo North Dakota; a fourth month old named Michael McCann passed away. His parents Steven and Karen McCann, overwhelmed by their own loss, made the remarkably courageous decision, to pass a gift of life to another infant.
Unknown to them at the time, across the continental divide, lay five month old Andrew De La Pena, an infant who’s prognosis was poor, and in urgent of a heart transplant, as he lay in his bed at the Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, California
At 11:45 PM, Michael's tiny heart was recovered, and the transplant window countdown began. The transplant team had only four hours to get the young donors heart over 1800 miles to the West coast if they had any chance of saving five month old Andrew’s fragile life
Rushing against the clock, a medivac Lear Jet was quickly fuelled, whilst its crew prepared to receive the infants heart. The ambulance raced up to the aircraft on the ramp, package was transferred, and the exit quickly closed against the cold December air. The Lear’s crew immediately began start up procedures for an expedited departure…but unfortunately one engine failed to start, forcing the medvac crew to shut down, knowing they could not complete the journey...and as the sound of the jets whine diminished, so did, any hope for the young infant in California.
All efforts had been made, and all alternatives had been discussed, there were simply no other options at that point. The distance was too great, and time too short.
One of the members of the transplant team, on a literal wing and a prayer, reached out to then Governor George Sinner for help…
and help is what they got!
Across the ramp, unseen in the darkness, sat the North Dakota Air National Guard 24 Hour Alert F-4 Phantom IIs.
The Phantom is a long-range supersonic jet interceptor and fighter-bomber, notoriously referred to, as the worlds largest distributor of MiG parts. Holder of 15 world records for in-flight performance, including an absolute speed record, and an absolute altitude record.
Carrying the nicknames of Old Smokey, The Rhino, Louisville Slugger, Lead Sled, The Hammer, and most graciously the Double Ugly, considered to be the triumph of thrust over aerodynamics...and loved by all. With her top speed of over two times the speed of sound ( Mach 2.22) powered by two engines capable of producing seventeen thousand eight hundred pounds of thrust with afterburners,
30 seconds after being contacted by Governor Sinner, Major General Alexander P. Macdonald, N.D. Adjutant General took to action, and the National Guard pilot on duty’s telephone rang. 1st Lieutenant Robert J. Becklund raced towards his fully fuelled and awaiting F-4 Phantom with maps in tow, and a small red and white cooler in hand. There would be no GIB(Guy In Back) on this night flight, 1st Lieutenant Buckland would be riding solo on this winter cross country.
Engines quickly spooled up, the Phantom rolled out under darkness for the runway. Then, Ol'Smokey the medivac, with afterburners selected, lit the night sky, with thunderous report, shaking nearby buildings as she announced her departure westbound for California, as only a Phantom could.
Pushing though the night air on her uniquely medical mission, the F-4 Phantom was a fearsome looking craft, normally tasked with ruling the skies, but, tonight her mission was one no-one had foreseen, and “Phailure" was not an option.
As the sun broke over the Californain skies, the Phantom had already touched down, the transplant completed, and thankfully, young 5 month old Andrew De La Pena was on the way to recovery, all very much to the delight of his mother, Debrah.
That tiny infant named Andrew, is now in his twenties. and the young 1st Lieutenant Phantom Driver, is now Colonel Becklund, commander, 119th Wing, North Dakota Air National Guard.
and as for the Phantom, although she carries no markings to proudly display the victorious nature of this medical mission, like any great aircraft, Ol'Smokey was quietly rolled back into her hanger, doors closed, silently adding another notch, albeit an unusual one, to her countless successes over many glorious years of service.