Emergency Response—The Famous 507th

by Scott Huddleston, staff writer, San Antonio Express-News

Editor’s note: Scott Huddleston noted the wonder years of the 507th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), long a resident of the Alamo City, lauding in 20 years of service to South Texas.

For more than 20 years, most emergency air ambulance services in the San Antonio area were provided free by the Army, as a part of military training for combat.

But the Persian Gulf War, military transfers and development of civilian air-ambulance services put an end to the local program called MAST—Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic.

The 507th Medical Company was formed in 1970 as a test unit for the MAST Program, created through an agreement among the departments of Defense; Transportation; and Health, Education, and Welfare. The agreement was the first to allow military units to transport civilian patients during what emergency medical experts call the “golden hour,” which can mean the difference between life and death.

In its first mission on July 17, 1970, the unit flew a man hit by a truck about 75 miles from Dilley to Baptist Memorial Hospital. Although the company’s core mission was providing medical evacuation during war, it spent about 90 percent of its time running civilian missions under the MAST Program.

Typically staffed with 120–130 personnel and equipped with seven UH-1 Huey helicopters, the company performed water rescues, hospital transfers, and emergency transports from wrecks, shootings, and other trauma incidents within a radius of up to 200 miles from its base at Fort Sam Houston.

The MAST Program worked so well it was expanded to other sites across the country in 1973.

But by the time San Antonio’s MAST service marked its twentieth anniversary in July 1990, there were signs the service could be jeopardized. The Baptist Health System planned to start a helicopter service that some feared could threaten MAST, since Department of Defense rules prevented the 507th from competing with air services sponsored by civilian hospitals.

Also, the area of MAST coverage had been reduced to within a 100-mile radius. And there was talk that the 507th could be moved to Fort Hood, home of the Army’s III Corps, its parent command, in central Texas.

In September 1990, MAST service in the San Antonio area was halted so the 507th could focus on training in support of military operations following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A few weeks later, the service was resumed, but within a 50-mile radius. By December, the MAST unit was grounded again to prepare for its 24 December deployment to the Middle East.

A 20-person unit attached to the California National Guard was sent to provide the local MAST service while the 507th was overseas during the Persian Gulf War. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Baptist system had started its helicopter service in early 1991, primarily to carry critically ill heart patients.

When the 507th returned in May 1991 from the Persian Gulf, the California guard unit was ordered to return that spring to a firefighting mission on the West Coast.

By 1993, the Baptist Health System was reporting losses from its service after its workload increased from 438 flights in 1991 to about 1,000 in 1993. The next year, it created a contractual partnership with Bexar County’s taxpayer-supported University Health System to continue the service, using a $5.5 million Bell 412-SP helicopter with a faster transport speed—about 150 mph—than the Hueys.

The 507th had only 62 flights in 1993, including its 5,000th civilian mission. By then it had moved most of its operations to Fort Hood, leaving three helicopters at Fort Sam Houston, mostly to serve Camp Bullis and Brooke Army Medical Center.

Since then, the 507th has moved all of its remaining aircraft and personnel to Fort Hood. Fort Sam Houston now contracts with private air ambulance providers to serve Bullis and its post hospital.