March 25, 2019

Hal Biestek-Flying To Save Sight

Hal Biesteck in cockpit of DC-10

Hal Biestek in a familiar place-the cockpit of the Orbis DC-10

No one would have faulted Hal Biestek for just kicking back and enjoying retirement after an aviation career of nearly 40 years in the military and then flying and instructing for United Airlines. He could have just indulged his passion for restoring  award-winning cars and added more trophies to the shelf. Instead, he has chosen to play a key role in bringing sight to people around the world with his volunteer work for Orbis International.

Biestek and Orbis go way back; back to the time when the nonprofit aerial teaching hospital was having its pilots trained at United and Biestek had the assignment of teaching them how to fly the DC-10 the organization had acquired for its worldwide missions. The big ship has been transformed from the days it flew for Laker Airways into a traveling hospital and it now delivers medical professionals trained in the techniques of saving and restoring sight to countries like Tanzania, India, Ethiopia, Zambia and Vietnam. Many flight instructors would have rightfully found great satisfaction in  providing the training that made it possible for other volunteer pilots to fly the plane, but that wasn’t enough for Biesteck. Throughout the later part of his 16 years with United he began to fly missions himself, and by 2012, he had logged 13 years of service with Orbis.

Orbis missions are usually requested as much as two years in advance, and typically by the health minister of the country in need. As the time of the mission approaches, an advance team handles the logistics of where the airplane will be staged, even down to the exact spot where it will be parked on the ramp since it won’t be possible to move it during the two weeks or so that it’s on the ground. A few days before the departure Universal Weather & Aviation takes care of the actual flight plan and paperwork, making it possible for the Orbis crew to do what they do best, fly the plane and deliver medical staff, equipment and most of all, expertise where it is needed most.

Hal Biestek portrait

Hal Biestek has flown over 30 missions for Orbis International

Biesteck’s long flying career began at the age of 16 with the Civil Air Patrol. His first lesson was in a Cub, and he soloed in a Champ. His first four years in the Air Force had him serving as a navigator on hurricane hunters and typhoon chasers before he  trained in T-37s and T-38s. From there he moved up to the C-141 Starlifter and soon to the massive C-5 cargo hauler.  Most of his time with United was spent in the DC-10, providing a natural pathway into his flying for Orbis. With an average of  flying two to four of the typical ten to twelve missions the DC-10 flies each year, Biestek  estimates that he has flown between 30 and 40 missions in his 13 years as a volunteer with Orbis.

Mission after mission, volunteer doctors and nurses use the DC-10’s unique on-board operating room and classroom to dramatically change the lives of those who have lost or would be losing sight.  And just as importantly, at each location they are there to teach; leaving behind doctors and nurses given the skills to take on the full-time mission of caring for their neighbors. The flying hospital has been reconfigured with a operating room with video feeds into a classroom (formerly the first class section) so that local doctors can watch live surgery and ask questions of an opthamologist .  Beistek says that in addition to the Orbis staff doctors, others are eager to volunteer, including renowned eye surgeons with “procedures named after them, the best of the best”. Teaching  during a surgery takes more time than surgery itself, but  the payoff is worth the extra time. Orbis International  says that because of the trained surgeons and support staff they leave behind,  an amazing number of people have been helped over the years. Their best estimate is between 18 and 20 million patients.

Beistek recalls seeing the effects of one mission in Tanzania, “They were doing a surgery on a nine year-old girl. Her tear duct was plugged up, and gone uncorrected, she would have gone blind in that eye. They did the surgery to replace that tear duct and I watched that happen. It was a pretty rewarding thing knowing that this nine year-old girl was going to be able to see the rest of her life. Of all of the things I have done in my life, this is certainly the most rewarding flying I have done. When you are flying passengers around you are happy when one passenger says ‘nice landing’, but this so far beyond “nice landing’ to see somebody see that hasn’t seen in years. That’s rewarding.”

For more information, visit Orbis International

Cameron King

Cameron King with baron

Cameron King

Less than seventy two hours after the earthquake struck Haiti, Cameron King was unloading a Piper Aztec on the ramp at the airport in Port-au-Prince. In the near chaos of the first days, only a few people took notice of King who looked more like a teenager than a young woman of 23 years. But as she flew more and more missions, people began to wonder “who is this kid and what’s she doing flying here?”  So, while on an overnight in Nassau, and in her typical can-do fashion, she commandeered a camera, computer and printer and fashioned a very official looking “Humanitarian Pilot” credential badge. It’s a badge she still wears today after having flown over 50 missions into airports throughout Haiti.

In the first days of their airlift, King worked with Bahamas Habitat pilot Matt Hansen and Abe McIntyre of their island-based sister organization to set up a command center at the Odyssey FBO in Nassau. She served as both a mission pilot and Disaster Response Coordinator for the US-based aviation mission organization. By the time the big push slowed two months later, Bahamas Habitat volunteer pilots had flown more than 400 missions, and delivered more than 125 tons of supplies into small airports in Haiti.

Modest almost to a fault, King looks back on the experience as “just something that needed to be done”, and she’sseemingly unaware of how remarkable her personal effort has been. As the magnitude of the effort began to unfold, King had logged only a little over 600 hours including training that began in Nashville and ended with a degree in Professional Flight Management from Auburn. Though she had advanced through Private, Commercial and instructor certificates and was multi-engine rated, it was a huge leap to go from the world of school flying to day after day of carrying a full load of supplies and medical personnel into demanding strips in a ravaged country.

Cameron King & Steve merritt

Cameron with Bahamas Habitat Co-founder Steve Merritt

She recalls the reaction of high-time volunteer pilots who arrived only to discover that “kids” were in charge of a sophisticated operation, “It was a funny moment when they said they were looking for Bahamas Habitat and found two 23 year-olds and a 29 year- old. It was a big time for my confidence because I’d been there and they hadn’t. So that relationship turned very complimentary in that I was confident in their ability to fly, and in turn they began to trust me as well, and I got to learn a ton from them.”

More than two years have passed since those  first constant days in the air, missed meals and nights of grabbing sleep on someone’s floor. And though her schedule is less frantic, her flying career goes on for King as she  recently accepted a position as company pilot for a business in Georgia.

Before taking that job she spent a year flying a volunteer water purification team into Haiti on a monthly basis. In village after village they installed filters that instantly changed the lives of people who used to become sickened and often died from water borne diseases.  King’s work with Bahamas Habitat  enabled her to help create a network of volunteer pilots who still fly on a regular basis to  provide valuable assistance to small organizations throughout Haiti, and she urges pilots who haven’t taken part to sign on for the most gratifying experience of their lives.

She may still look like a kid, but with the food, medical supplies, doctors, nurses and surgeons she delivered to people in their hours of greatest need, Cameron King has a legacy worthy of an old pro.

(This feature was originally published in AOPA PILOT magazine. It has been edited and updated.)


SouthWings Volunteers- Image courtesy of SouthWings

It only takes one flight to discover a simple but powerful truth. There is no better way to see the effect of the hand of man upon nature than to view it from above.  For good or bad, the big picture is easily revealed, and the knowledge gained from that perspective provides insight that can lead to affirmation on what works, or to better choices to fix what doesn’t.

If you fly in the southeastern United States, and especially have the good fortune to pass over the ridges and valleys of the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains, you’ll see evergreen and hardwood forests that look  much as they did when Native Americans called them home, and pioneers first explored them. The vastness of the land once deemed wilderness still astounds, even when traveling above it at speeds unthinkable not too many years ago.

But often, in the midst of an ocean of trees there will appear the jarring and obvious scars of mountaintop removal; the sacrificing of near pristine forest to get at the coal and minerals that lie beneath the roots of trees and brush. It is instructive to see this standing on the same level, and it is  far more powerfully instructive to see it from a few thousand feet above.

That’s what SouthWings does. Its volunteer pilots take decision makers and educators aloft to give them a birds-eye view of the effects of strip mining, grading, development and effluent runoff. And since 1996, they have done so not only above the mountains, but above the low lands, estuaries and coastlines of the 11 state region they serve. Since SouthWings was founded they have flown with over 800 partner organizations, and average approximately 170 flights each year.

Based in the picturesque city of Asheville, North Carolina, SouthWings offers an aerial perspective  to provide an “experiential understanding of environmental challenges and opportunities for conservation”. They do their work with four full-time staff members and the support and direction of a nine member board. Once a mission is chosen, the flights are conducted by one of nearly 40 volunteer pilots who take aloft members of the media, volunteers from other grassroots organizations, VIPS and most importantly, legislators and policy makers on the state and national level.

Mountain Top removal in WV

Mountain top removal for mine in Rawl, WV Image courtesy of SouthWings

It’s one thing for a member of a legislature to look at stack of papers proposing approval of a new mining operation, and it’s quite another for them to fly above an existing mine to see what happens when a proposal becomes a reality. Only when seen from that perspective can the scope and impact of past decisions be put into context. And the same is true when it’s time to consider a permit for a industrial plant that will be located next to a freshwater source. The gift of this perspective (SouthWings does not charge for flights) is a proactive one. They want those who will make decisions that can affect  generations to come to be fully aware of the consequences in advance,  and not make choices that force others to react to a crisis that could have been avoided.

But when a crisis does arise, as with the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, SouthWings is prepared to help. During the early days of the spill, when BP and local officials downplayed the extent of the  amount of oil gushing from the damaged well, SouthWings joined other volunteer organizations to help document the  amount of visible oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico on its way to the shores of several states. SouthWings volunteer pilots flew over 50 missions, providing timely and critical information to people in a position to try to find solutions to an unprecedented environmental impact.

SouthWings volunteer pilots come from all walks of life, and generously provide their time and the use of their aircraft because they know they have a valuable service to offer. They know this because they are fortunate to see the earth in a way that was denied to people before the first lighter-than-air machines left the earth, and this relatively new way of seeing is a constant reminder of how valuable is the land below, and how critical the need to preserve it for those to follow.

To find out more about the aviators and missions of  SouthWings, or to learn how you can help, visit

Doug Vincent

Doug Vincent portrait

Doug Vincent of Angel Flight of Oklahoma

What happened to air traffic on the morning of 9/11 was unprecedented. Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and then the crash of United 93, the only aircraft left in the air over the continental United States were operated by the military, the government and official rescue units. Time lapse images of  the flow of private and commercial aircraft over the country show flights beginning to disappear from the screen within minutes after the grounding order was issued.

No one could know it at the time, but the stand down would last for days for general aviation, with only IFR traffic being allowed back in the air as the following weekend approached, and only with exceptionally tight restrictions. Commercial traffic had begun shortly before, with airliners once again painting their white trails across blue skies that had remained remarkably clear of the evidence of air travel for the first days following the attacks.

This is all common knowledge and now part of aviation lore. What is little known is the story of  the flight of a  Cessna that took off from an airport in Oklahoma on the night of 9/11 and made its way to Louisville, Kentucky. It was not the flight of a pilot who had somehow missed word of the grounding, or who had chosen to ignore the order. It was the flight of Doug Vincent, and it was a mission of mercy fully sanctioned by the FAA.

Vincent’s Louisiana background is still evident in the Cajun accent that colors a conversation with him.  After growing up just outside Lafayette he became an Army mechanic who learned to fly in the 1970’s and bought his first plane in the early 1990’s. For a while, the simple act of flying was enough for Vincent, but as time passed he felt the urge to use his knowledge and skill for a more meaningful purpose. He says, “You own an airplane because you like to fly. I tell my wife it’s saving time. I tell Uncle Sam it’s a business. But you own an airplane because you like to fly. And, I have a charitable bent and this is my main charity-where I can use my passion and help somebody at the same time. That makes flying worthwhile.”

Since choosing to donate his time and the use of his plane to Angel Flight of Oklahoma, Vincent estimates that he has flown nearly 400 missions, taking people to cancer centers in Houston, or on sad but rewarding final flights from sterile hospital rooms to the familiar surroundings of their home so that they can spend their last hours surrounded by family and friends. Each flight is a gift in the best sense of the word, and it’s clear that Vincent feels that he receives more than he gives. And so it was that years of  helping build an aptly-named organization in Oklahoma led to a singular flight in his Cessna 210 on the night of the darkest day in the aviation history of the country.

Vincent clearly recalls 9/11, “They were shutting everything down, and everything was in a panic. One of  the Angel Flight guys in Oklahoma City contacted the Oklahoma Blood Institute there and asked if they needed help. He told them that we had airplanes available, and at first they didn’t know who he was or what he was talking about. It went back and forth for a while and then it finally developed that we were going to do it.”

Once the mission of moving blood supplies to New York and Washington had been planned, the next step for Vincent was figuring out how to get a clearance on a day when all general aviation and commercial flights were not allowed to fly. Vincent called a contact in Washington and was told there was an exception for military and medical flights flying with a special transponder code. Another call to Flight Service provided guidance that once he filed a plan, Vincent could call the tower for his discrete code. The first call to the tower didn’t work and he was advised to call approach. Finally a controller provided him with the special procedure that would allow him to depart from Tulsa for Oklahoma City where he would pick up the blood supplies and his friend Mark Hayward who would serve as his co-pilot. In the meantime he had removed all of the seats from his Cessna 210 in preparation for the flight that was to begin at 9PM.

On a night with clear skies almost completely devoid of other traffic, Vincent and Hayward headed East. “We flew as far as Louisville where we met another plane that came in that night. They were with the Volunteer Pilots Association out of Pennsylvania. It was a very spooky, weird night with the emotions of what had happened, and with just nothing going on. No chatter on the radio, but every now and then a controller would still announce that everybody has to land. I even asked a controller if that applied to us and he said no.”

On the approach into Louisville Vincent heard something there had been very little of since leaving Oklahoma City, another pilot on the frequency. It was the pilot from Pennsylvania on his way to meet them. Within minutes of landing the blood supplies had been transferred and both aircraft departed; Vincent and Hayward for home, and the pilot from Pennsylvania left on a mission to deliver the blood to the site of the attacks. Vincent says, “As it turned out, they didn’t need a lot of blood, but they didn’t know that at the time.”

From a departure just after darkness fell on 9/11, to their arrival back in Oklahoma as the sun rose the next morning, the round trip had Vincent and Hayward sharing flying on the most unforgettable of  nights. It was a night when hundreds of millions of other Americans, and countless millions more around the world sat stunned in front of televisions. And a night when just a few volunteer pilots sat in cockpits, radios quiet, and with plenty of time to think about what had happened just hours earlier in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark and well-defined. On an achingly clear morning aircraft had been used as instruments of terror, and just a few hours later, they were being used as vehicles of hope.

Later, Angel Flight of Oklahoma and the Volunteer Pilots Association would share the first Public Benefit Flying “Teamwork” Award  in recognition of their service in flying relief missions after 9/11. Doug Vincent is modest about his role in the flight on 9/11/2001, saying that it was one of the many significant flights of his career of volunteering to help others. But as he pauses to think about answering the question, it’s obvious that the memory of  that one quiet night of flying is still powerful and emotional, and that he considers himself fortunate to have found a way to help.

Roger Krenzin

Teaching…the most noble profession.

Though Roger Krenzin has been a mission pilot, a soldier, and an aircraft mechanic working in remote areas  throughout the world, if you want to see his eyes light up, ask him about being a teacher. More specifically, a teacher of others who use airplanes on behalf of JAARS, a mission aviation program based in North Carolina.

If asked to provide a quick description of Krenzin, several come easily to mind: friendly, happy-go-lucky and somehow a little intense all at the same time, and above all, dedicated to sharing what he has learned over more than 30 years of  mission flying.

Flying for the benefit of others has been his life, and despite his best efforts to hide a sadness that comes with such a decision, Krenzin has been forced to ground himself. A little less than two years ago he noticed that he no longer had the easy and sure recall a pilot needs, especially if an emergency should arise. A trip to the doctor and an MRI didn’t reveal a tumor or other easily-revealed hidden reason for words or facts to be just out of reach, but doctors eventually diagnosed a degenerative left frontal lobe. Calling his self-grounding “the hardest thing he has ever done”, he has since concentrated on continuing to teach, adding hours of ground instruction to the thousands he no longer bothers to log.

Off a runway carved from a farm field, his dad gave him his first flight when he was only five months old. Not long after, his father became a mission pilot and moved the family to Sudan where Roger would grow up admiring his father’s work, and learning to respect the customs, challenges and hardships faced by people living in poverty. That experience had a profound influence on the young boy, forever shaping his approach to people of cultures far removed from those of his family and friends. And his broader outlook would sometimes reveal itself in unusual and effective ways.

During a period of heavy flying in Ecuador, Krenzin would often fly delivery and medical missions to remote areas, and aware that he needed to connect to the members of one tribe that still harbored suspicions of an outsider, he would wear the clothing of that tribe when he flew into the jungle strip near their village. Because he cared about how they would see this man arriving in an airplane, and he understood what would help them accept him, they responded by calling him “brother”, a memory still readily available to him after many years.Roger Krenzin portrait

Another powerful memory takes him back to Ecuador again, and to the Waodani, a tribe living near the  remote town of Shell. Years ago they were known as the Auca, and their story is forever linked to the tragic massacre of five missionaries in the mid-1950’s. Krenzin recalls the story of an emergency medical flight to save the son of Dyuwi, one of the tribesmen who killed the missionaries, and who would later become a “minister”  to his own people.

Krenzin easily remembers the details of the story including the date of the flight, April 19th, 1982, “I got a call to fly a medical emergency flight from a site that’s about a mile from Palm Beach (site of the massacre of the missionaries) and when I landed,  Dyuwi was carrying his son Tañi to the 650-foot strip, and his son’s eyes were red and he was gasping for breath. He had an internal infection and he was dying.”

Krenzin knew that Dyuwi was known for praying for a long time, and that if Tañi was to be saved, he would need to depart immediately, so he offered a short and simple prayer of his own, “I said, ‘Lord, help him not to pray long’.  Dyuwi wanted to circle the airplane with the other Waodani people and pray for his son, but we laid the boy in the plane and strapped him on the floor. I flew the boy to the hospital in Shell, and two weeks later they called and asked me to fly him back to the village because he had recovered.” Krenzin’s flight from the jungle saved the life of the young boy, and created a lifelong and unique bond only possible between those whose lives cross in moments of crisis, when one person gives and the other receives.

Krenzin has since followed the life of Tañi, and says that, “In 2009 they had a training course on using outboard motors, and Tañi, now a grown man, gave the devotional and said, “When we have a bad outboard motor and we can’t fix it, we just throw it out. God doesn’t do that because he wants to heal us, use us and love us. Then he said, “I almost died, and if I would have, God would not have thrown me out, but would have taken me home.” Now the young man who would have died without Krenzin’s flight in 1982 is a spiritual leader in his tribe.

Roger Krenzin knows he has been fortunate to have been a pilot and a teacher, and as it becomes harder to recall  some of the special times, that he’s fortunate to have snippets of memories recorded as terse lines in his logbooks; little bits of information that still trigger the sight of a jungle canopy passing feet below with a young boy beside him on his way back to life with his family, or bring back the smell of  the cockpit of an old DC-3 as it lumbered across the mountains of Colombia, or remind him of the seemingly endless expanse of ocean underneath the twins he ferried to mission sites in New Guinea or the Philippines.

Roger Krenzin’s logbooks may appear to be filled only with dates and times marking more than 6000 hours of mission flying in 41 countries, but  they are far more than that. They are a testament to his work that has changed and saved lives. And his thousands of hours as a teacher are a testament to a legacy that lives on in every flight of each of  his students as they take what he has taught them and fly their own missions into jungle and mountain strips. His memories may dim as time and disease takes its toll, but his life of service so well-lived will last forever.

Air Care Alliance

Public benefit flying award presentation

(L-R) Rol Murrow of ACA, Gene Schmidt-Bahamas Habitat Volunteer Pilot and Jonathan Gaffney of NAA as Schmidt receives the 2010 Distinguished Volunteer Pilot Award

“The voice of public benefit flying.”

The Air Care Alliance  (ACA) is now 21 years old, but you’d be hard pressed to find another 21-year-old with such an impact on so many lives. Like other organizations that truly fulfill their missions, ACA was the product of visionaries; people who understood that charitable aviation groups would be more effective if they became allies. So, in 1990, at the invitation of Bill Worden of Angel Flight, Rol Murrow of Emergency Volunteer Air Corps, and  Patricia Weil Coats, VP of AOPA’s Communications Department, more than 100 people  from 25 volunteer groups met at AOPA  and  ACA was born.

ACA Chairman Rol Murrow says, “The Air Care Alliance was formed to provide a way for charitable aviation groups to work better together, to provide a central clearinghouse where patients, communities, or volunteers could find all the various groups and learn about them, and to act as the voice of public benefit flying, working for appropriate regulatory treatment and better understanding of it by the public and our elected officials.”

When someone with a need visits ACA’s website they find a treasure trove of contact information on the more than 65 groups listed there, many of them providing transport for medical needs, and with the listings arranged by geographic service areas. But ACA’s reach doesn’t end with serving as a clearinghouse of information on volunteers who provide patient transport. They help people get in touch with organizations that deliver critically-needed supplies during natural disasters, or rescue animals by transporting them to no-kill shelters. Their listings also include groups who serve environmental causes, fly search and rescue missions and introduce children to aviation.

Though their primary goal is to connect those in need with those who serve, Murrow knows that there is another important mission,  and that’s “telling the public about the wonderful work of all the groups and their members.” With general  aviation often under attack from groups and individuals who can’t see beyond stereotypes, ACA knows that getting the word out on the benefits of thousands of charitable flights every year is a powerful  and effective tool in counteracting misinformation.

When asked if one story stands out for him, Murrow says that their are too many to pick a single example, and that’s the  most diplomatic answer  in tribute to the thousands of pilots who have donated hundreds of thousands of hours over the years. Even so, each year ACA works with the National Aeronautical Association to honor selected pilots and organizations at the National Public Benefit Flying “Above and Beyond” award ceremony in  the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Though bringing together those who  use aviation to serve with those who need understandably draws the greatest attention, ACA is busy behind the scenes working to assure that charitable aviation organizations will have their voices heard by those who both create and enforce regulations on private flying in the United States. And they do all of this with volunteers.

For Rol Murrow and the others who give of their time to run ACA, the greatest gift is pilots who only want to share their skills and time, “The big story that is so incredible is that so many pilots are willing to drop everything, and to get their plane out and fly hundreds of miles to help a complete stranger get medical care, or to find a lost soul, or to take supplies to a community that has been devastated. Thousands of incredible and heart warming stories taken together comprise this big story of public benefit flying!”

For more information, visit

Michele McGuire

Michele McGuire with Cooper and her Skyhawk

In just over 500 hours of flying Michele McGuire has helped save over 200 lives… the small furry kind.
She didn’t start flying to save dogs and cats on missions for organizations like Pilots N Paws, but now she can’t imagine not using her Cessna Skyhawk to move endangered animals from high-kill shelters to the safety of rescue organizations that protect them until a new home is found.

Looking back, McGuire’s initiation into transporting animals seemed predestined, as she’s the owner of a well-known business that helps pilots protect the hearing of their traveling canine (and feline) companions. She had already learned to fly when she created Mutt Muffs, simple and effective hearing protectors for pets who fly in the loud cockpits of general aviation aircraft. On the company’s website she encourages pilots to share the stories of their flying friends, and it was one of those stories that changed her into an active volunteer.

She remembers that moment, “One of our customers submitted a picture of one of his Pilots N Paws flights for our customer gallery. I looked at the website, and was very moved. I thought to myself that if I ever had the time that would definitely be something I’d like to do. I went back to work, but I kept going back to Pilots N Paws, and after a couple of hours of that, I finally gave in and signed up. It’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done. I love flying those hard-luck cases to better lives. In most cases it is saving those lives, because they would be put down if they couldn’t get to rescues and permanent homes.”

Michele with her co-pilot Cooper

McGuire grew up in a family that always had dogs, and that continues to today, with their current dog “Cooper”serving as the inspiration for her company’s main product. It seems her husband doesn’t like to fly and Cooper has become her ‘co-pilot” by default. Her concern over hearing damage to her dog’s sensitive ears led to Mutt Muffs, and she now uses a portion of the proceeds from her business to pay for her rescue flights.

With over 40 transport flights logged, she loves the idea of her pet products-based company being able to support her charitable flying,  “What good is success if you don’t put it to good use helping those who truly have no way to help themselves? I fly every opportunity I get, but between weather and other obligations, I usually fly between two and three missions a month.” To encourage others to volunteer, she posts a “little travelogue” of her transport flights on her company website.

Reading through the stories of her rescue flights, it’s easy to see what a soft touch McGuire is, and why she has become one of Pilots N Paws’ many “go to” pilots. She easily recalls a flight that saved an older, emaciated Great Dane called “Dana” from certain death. “No one knew how she ended up at the shelter in Alabama, but because of her age and condition, she was not even put out for adoption. The poor thing was so starved, every bone in her body showed through. Through the power of the Internet, her plight touched the heart of a woman in Massachusetts who offered to adopt her and let her live out her days in a good home.”

Michele does admit that she was concerned at the prospect of having to lift a 100 pound dog up into the Skyhawk. After all, even a  too thin Great Dane is still a large dog. But she didn’t have to worry. “That sweet girl was so starved that she would have jumped over the moon for a treat. I am happy to report that Dana is flourishing now. She’s gained weight and has a great home.”

Missy, a rescue dog during transport

McGuire call her flights in support of Pilots N Paws “the best reason to fuel up the plane”, a reason to  keep her flight planning and instrument skills sharp by flying to  airports she hasn’t visited before. And the benefits don’t end there, “You meet other like-minded animal loving pilots; your flight is tax deductible, and you get to save some fur balls. There’s absolutely no downside to this.”

She’s quick to give credit to the volunteers who run the loosely organized network of no kill rescue shelters throughout the country. “They work tirelessly to save as many animals as possible. I am honored to pull my airplane out of the hangar and help by merely providing the transport.”

And when it comes to new pilot volunteers, she has a bit of advice, “Be forewarned, there is the distinct danger that you may fall in love with one of these furry heartbreakers and adopt them. It’s happened before!”

To learn how you can volunteer for animal rescue flights, visit Pilots N Paws.

Pilots N Paws

Pumpkin and Pilot Brad

“We need to do something!”  With that simple statement, a great idea came to life and Pilots N Paws was born.  The online  program that unites volunteer pilots with animal rescue organizations grew out of one woman’s need to make a home for a Doberman that had been rescued in Florida.

Debi Boies had recently lost her own 12-year-old Doberman, and it wasn’t long before she  began searching for another dog to bring into her South Carolina home.  Her search was successful, but one problem remained. How would her new Doberman get from Florida to upstate South Carolina?

Boies recalls, “I sent out an email to my friends to see if any of them were by chance making a trip from Florida to the Carolinas.  My friend and soon to be co-founder of Pilots N Paws, Jon Wehrenberg of Knoxville,Tennessee, responded to my plea and generously offered to fly the Dobie from Florida to SC. I was overwhelmed at his generosity. After the transport flight, Jon asked me questions about rescue work and animals in shelters, including what happens to them, where they go, and how they get there. The easiest reply was to send him to various websites detailing how ground coordinators set up vehicle transports, and I asked him to view several shelter sites as well. The next day he sent an email and said, we need to do something! I agreed and asked if he thought Pilots N Paws would be an acceptable name. Of course it was, and a great idea took shape.”

Rescue Volunteer with a lucky doberman puppy.

Since the first official flight in 2008, volunteer pilots have  flown thousands of dogs, cats and other rescued animalsto new homes throughout the country. Currently, over 2000 pilots are registered  on the website-based forum that provides a venue for rescue organizations to post their transport needs, and for pilots to respond with offers to fly the animals.

Boies says that an accurate count of the numbers of animals helped is impossible, because pilots make their arrangements directly with rescue  groups, and though many will send stories and pictures, “… others simply fly when they can and pilots are never seeking accolades for the work they do, they just want to help.”

And pilots help by doing what they do best, they fly. Except on Pilots N Paws missions, they do so with  special passengers that are on their way to new forever homes, often after just escaping certain death at overcrowded shelters. They live because people make a choice to save them, and  then pilots use their skills and time to  fly them hundreds or thousands of miles to safety.

To Boies, every animal saved is special. But when pressed, she remembers the story of a dog that was rescued, nursed to good health and eventually flown to Pennsylvania;  a story that speaks to the  human kindness that changes the lives of not just the animals, but of those who save them, “It was the week of Christmas, cold and frigid temperatures, when a man driving by a local shelter thought he saw a blanket move on the side of the road.  It was dark, he wasn’t sure, so he turned around and went to check.  Inside the blanket was a Doberman who was so covered in sores that the pads were missing from his feet and he could not stand.  This kind man took the Doberman in, contacted rescue and begged for help.  It wasn’t long before “Christmas” received the veterinary care he so desperately needed and is now in a loving home.  If not for the kindness of this passerby, this dog would have died in the freezing cold that night.  Instead, he is smiling , healthy and happy! He is one of the lucky ones…..It just takes one person to make a change in the life of one animal, why not be that one?”

Pilot Jeff Bennett with two of the the thousands of animals saved.

The effect on those who volunteer is best expressed in their own words: “This is the most rewarding flight I have ever made”, “I love dogs, I love to fly so why not make a difference?”, “This flight was the first time I have cried in years after one of my passengers stood on her paws and kissed my face”, “Such a good dog, I could not have had a better co-pilot”, “Sometimes a certain rescue flight stays with you forever, this one’s my forever one”,  a great day for flying with rescues on board”.

Volunteer pilots speak of the rescue organizations as angels, and the organizations speak of the pilots as angels. All the animals know is that life is now good, and for those that saved them, that’s enough.

To learn more or to volunteer, visit Pilots N Paws.


JAARS Quest Kodiak Image courtesy of JAARS

One of the first things people ask about JAARS is “where does the name come from?”, and for that, you have to go back more than 60 years to the beginning of what was then called “Jungle Aviation and Radio Service”.  In fact, the organization had its roots much earlier in William Townsend’s first trip to Guatemala in 1917. But it wasn’t until 1947 when the Bible salesman turned missionary and his wife were injured in a plane crash in Mexico that Townsend decided that his Bible translation service needed safe and reliable air transportation for remote regions in Central  and South America.

In 1948, JAARS was founded with a single airplane in Peru, a model for what would be a fast-growing organization that soon provided a variety of missionary-based services throughout South America, Africa, Asia and the Philippines. In the early 1960’s a world headquarters facility began to grow on land donated by a North Carolina businessman, and with that donation came a pilot training facility at a small airport near Waxhaw, NC.

Over the years the field has become JAARS-Townsend Airport, and the pilots trained there number in the thousands. Even with several short grass field practice approaches in addition to the 3200- foot paved runway, the relatively benign airport in Waxhaw is just the first step in training that allows JAARS pilots to routinely land on sloping 600 foot runways in New Guinea or in the Philippines. To prepare them for such demanding operations, after their basic training in Waxhaw, JAARS pilots must successfully transition through a series of increasingly

JAARS PC-6 Image Courtesy of JAARS

demanding approaches and takeoffs at strips in the mountains of North Carolina before they graduate.

As the organization’s outreach has grown, so have its capabilities and the number and types of aircraft in service. As of early 2011, JAARS has nearly 70 active pilot-mechanics (they need for their pilots to be A&Ps to be able to handle field repairs). They operate in five countries and fly a variety of aircraft including venerable Helio Couriers, Cessna 206s,  a King Air 200, a variety of helicopters, and their new airplanes of choice, turbine-equipped Pilatus PC12’s and PC-6s, and the new Quest Kodiak.

For more information, visit JAARS.


Aerial patrol  to monitor a quarry on the Hudson River

Image by Giles Ashford with aerial support by LightHawk

A mission to “champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight”.

LightHawk grew from a seed planted in 1974 with a simple suggestion to use aircraft to educate legislators and reporters on the potential environmental damage of a proposed coal-fired power plant near the Grand Canyon. Those flights led to the power plant project being abandoned. And though it would be another four years before the nonprofit was officially born with the donation of a Cessna 210, the concept of an aviation organization that could influence policy and decision makers with irrefutable evidence gained from a bird’s-eye view had been validated.

Now more than 30 years later, with its all-volunteer corps of more than 180 pilots and twelve staff members spread throughout the United States, LightHawk flies more than 1000 missions each year. They do not see themselves as an advocacy organization espousing a singular political point of view, but are willing to let the aerial “testimony” produced by their flights speak for itself.  Lighthawk works with hundreds of partner organizations across the US, Mexico, Central America and in parts of Canada to provide missions that help protect and preserve the environment.

For partners like The Nature Conservancy and Riverkeepers, LightHawk donated flights help gather scientific data, perform aerial surveys of endangered and threatened wildlife, and fly aerial patrols to track pollution and deforestation. The organization has also formed a unique and very productive partnership with the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), a nonprofit group of photographers dedicated to “translating conservation science into compelling visual messages”.

The pilots who volunteer their time and use of their aircraft to fly for LightHawk defy easy categorization. They are entrepreneurs and lawyers, homemakers and retired military and airline pilots. Many have flown multiple missions in demanding conditions, and their work is carefully coordinated with LightHawk program managers to create opportunities for educating those whose decisions could have long-lasting effects on land, water and wildlife.

Early on the group set their pilot qualification standards high with a minimum of 1000 hours PIC time, and they require an extensive orientation interview for new volunteers. Due to the nature of their missions, pilots often fly in remote areas at 1000 feet AGL, and with the need to maneuver to provide critical views for passengers and photographers, LightHawk only wants pilots with excellent command of their aircraft.

Pilots are in a unique position to witness the natural wonder and beauty passing beneath their wings, and to see the damage and devastation too often visited upon the land and waters below. The pilots of LightHawk have committed to go beyond simply decrying injury to the earth by donating the valuable resource of flight to help protect and preserve land, water and wildlife. For more information or to volunteer, visit LightHawk.

Gene Schmidt

Gene Schmidt

The day after the earthquake struck, Gene Schmidt sat at home watching the first footage of the devastation in Haiti. Image after image of stunned and frightened Haitians walking in shock through streets littered with buildings reduced to powder and chunks of concrete left him asking: “How can I help?”

A long time pilot and owner of a Baron, Gene contacted some of the bigger  aviation nonprofits offering to help, only to learn that they had no plans at the time to organize relief flights. Then he heard that a small group called Bahamas Habitat had been in the air flying into Haiti  just hours after the dust began to settle.

By the first weekend after the quake, Schmidt left the comfort of his home in Pensacola, Florida and stopped in Gainesville, FL to join up with his friend Sam Frasier. Within hours, Schmidt in his Baron and Frasier in his Bonanza were flying their first missions into Haiti. By that Monday Schmidt  was a veteran, having flown into a number of  smaller airports like Cap Haitien, Jeremie and Les Cayes dropping off critically needed supplies and bringing people out.

Gene couldn’t have known it at the time, but it would be the first of seven weekends in a row of  flights from Florida to the Bahamas and then on to Haiti,  during which he and his Baron would haul thousands of pounds of  desperately needed medical equipment into small towns on the perimeter of the quake zone. The experience would change his life.

Recalling his most memorable mission, Schmidt tells of reuniting a young girl stranded in Haiti with her mother in the States, “While I was in Haiti my wife was being interviewed by a reporter from a local Pensacola TV station, and when I got home I got a call from a Haitian woman who is married to an American and lives in Pensacola. Her daughter had been in Port au Prince during the earthquake and was stuck there; the family had been split up or killed. The mother had lost touch with her daughter and wanted to know if I could go down and get her.”

As the story unfolded, Schmidt learned that even though the seven year old girl had a passport, she didn’t have a visa to get her into the United States. So he contacted the TV reporter and asked him to use his connections with a congressman to expedite a visa, but the reporter responded that it takes months even to get an emergency visa. Schmidt asked him to call the hysterical mother with the bad news.

The reporter then asked Schmidt if he could accompany him on a mission to “follow the trail” of the medical supplies being donated, so the two of them traveled to Les Cayes on a Saturday. There, two men approached them with a little girl in tow and said, ” This is Rosie, and you’re supposed to take her back to the States.” When they told the men that it wasn’t possible without a visa, the men said they were leaving Rosie at the airport to fend for herself.

Schmidt says, “We decided we would take her back to the States and hoped it would all work out when we got there. Dan Thomas, the reporter stayed in Les Cayes and I told him to get on the phone and call somebody, because later that evening I was going to be arriving at Customs in Fort Lauderdale with this little girl with no visa. He found a local Florida state representative, Ellyn Bogdanoff, and she met me at the airport at 10:30 at night, and we were able to talk the Customs officials into giving Rosie a two year “parole”.

“We were able to get her mother flown to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday morning and they were back in Pensacola by Sunday afternoon. Rosie, this beautiful  little girl who spoke French but no English at all, is now in third grade in Pensacola and speaks English. And now she’s over at our house quite often.”

Looking back, Schmidt say that, “The most incredible thing that I saw was that this whole operation, the hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies we delivered, the lives that were saved was essentially in the hands of Abraham McIntyre, Cameron King and Matt Hansen of Bahamas Habitat. It was amazing thing to see that these three young people put together such an impressive operation in such a short time.”

Gene Schmidt was honored months later in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington where he received the Public Benefit Pilot Of The Year award by the National Aeronautic Association. Though proud he was chosen, he’s quick to point out that his honor symbolizes the efforts of the hundreds of pilots who responded, “There’s no question that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who are alive today who would not be alive if it were not for all of the general aviation pilots from the U.S. that responded. It was an amazing thing.”

Veterans Airlift Command

“They’ve got heart, they need wings.”

Of all the struggles wounded veterans face upon returning home, the least should be how to stay in touch with family when they must travel  for medical treatment. And that’s why Walt Fricke founded Veterans Airlift Command.

A wounded  warrior  and active pilot himself, Walt knew that other pilots would rally around the cause of providing  medical and compassionate flights for  wounded veterans and their families. With Fricke providing flight coordination through phone and website contact, over 1700 volunteer pilots have flown service members and their families throughout the country. Currently VAC’s priority is serving veterans of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).

In a fitting tribute to those who have served and sacrificed, Veterans Airlift Command flights are now recognized with the call sign “Hero Flight” by Air Traffic Control.

To learn more about the work of Walt Fricke and his organization, visit Veterans Airlift Command.

Able Flight

(L-R) Able Flight pilots Jorge Urrea, Jake Jeter, Jessica Scharle, Brad Jones and Sean O'Donnell

Able Flight has been called a lot of things since I founded it in 2006, but perhaps my favorite came from one of our pilots when he anointed this unique aviation nonprofit as the “little engine that could”. In its first five years Able Flight has kept its focus on its mission with dogged determination and single-mindedness. We set out to use aviation to change the lives of people with physical disabilities, and through them, to change the lives and perceptions of others. And that we have done.

Six months after Able Flight went from idea to reality we awarded our first two scholarships, and six months later I watched Brad Jones’ parents crying tears of joy when their son taxied in from his FAA check ride as a newly-licensed pilot. People pass check rides every day, so what made this one so special? Because only a year earlier, at almost the same time Able Flight was born, Brad’ parents were called to a hospital where they saw him in an emergency room and heard the word “paralyzed”.

On the day Brad became a pilot, he proved something special to himself and everyone that knows him or has heard his story. Since then there have been other remarkable stories of people overcoming daunting challenges; a young woman born without arms who became a pilot flying with her feet, and a young man who is a quadriplegic, and yet still holds the Able Flight record for earning his license in the fewest hours.

Able Flight pilot Jessica Cox receives her Wings from Aviation Hall of Fame member Patty Wagstaff

There have been wounded veterans, people born with congenital birth defects, and those who must deal with the effects of a devastating illness or injury. Now they share something that makes them unique in aviation. They have a set of wings with the letters “AF” in the center. Only those Able Flight scholars who have earned their pilot’s license get to wear these wings; not me, nor our largest donor. And that’s the way it should be, because our pilots are the heart and soul of Able Flight.

We succeed in fulfilling our mission because we believe in people who believe in themselves and are willing to do what it takes to prove their abilities.  I sometimes wonder what they think the first time they leave a wheelchair behind, or slip a prosthetic leg over the canopy rail and they manage to get into the cockpit of an airplane for the first time. They are beginning a new journey that most could have never imagined. I can’t know their every emotion, because I haven’t experienced the challenges they face every day; but of this I’m certain, they experience the joy that only freedom can bring, and joy is a wonderful thing.

I applaud each of their flight instructors for sharing their knowledge, and each sponsor and person who donates, because they have become partners in changing lives. I hope I never miss an opportunity to thank them, and to remind them of what a wonderful legacy they leave in every Able Flight pilot.

If you’d like to help a dream come true, visit Able Flight.

Freedom Flight 2011

Sean O'Donnell and Heather Schultz

In January 2011, Able Flight pilots Heather Schultz and Sean O’Donnell  fulfilled a wish to give back what was given to them by helping wounded veterans become pilots. Beginning on a bitterly cold morning in Wilmington, Delaware, they flew Sean’s specially adapted airplane on a multi-city tour of a thousand miles to demonstrate to wounded veterans and others that paralysis or other disabilities are no barrier for them.

Years ago, Sean became a paraplegic as the result of a motorcycle accident, and  four three years ago, Heather became a quadriplegic because of a diving accident. Now, they have something new in common-they are both licensed pilots.

At stops along their journey, they met with patients of veteran’s centers and spinal cord rehab hospitals, and with media representatives to share how they overcame  their own challenges to become pilots, and of the freedom they earned with hard work, determination and willpower.

Sean and Heather also used the journey to raise funds for Able Flight scholarships to make it possible for wounded veterans to become pilots. With support from large and small donations, they successfully helped Able Flight build a fund for two wounded veterans to become pilots in 2011.

Though their official Freedom Flight 2011 fund raising project has ended, Heather and Sean are still encouraging supporters to contribute any amount to support the Able Flight scholarship fund by donating here , and dedicating the donation to wounded veterans.

Bahamas Habitat

(L-R) Dave Spangler, Steve Merritt, Dave Robertson, Matt Hansen, Ken DeYoung and Cameron King

Bahamas Habitat began a few years ago as a small group of U.S.-based pilots with a desire to volunteer their planes and skills to help the people of the islands of the Bahamas recover from the damage visited upon them by tropical storms. They organized “Fly In & Help Out” weekends, encouraging pilots of small airplanes to transport supplies and good will to the least fortunate of those who live on a chain of islands many see as paradise.

The nonprofit was the brainchild of two North Carolina friends, John Armstrong and Steve Merritt, both well-connected with pilots around the southeast who would volunteer to pay their own way to fly planes loaded with building supplies and volunteers to Eleuthera to work on someone’s destroyed roof, or help build a home from scratch. Armstrong and Merritt were smart enough to sweeten the deal by including a little non-work time to sample a beautiful beach, or a mini fly-out to another island for lunch.

Their small but effective organization soon earned a loyal following with aviators who wanted to help, and it was this core group of dedicated pilots who would prove invaluable when the earth shifted and devastated  Port-Au-Prince and surrounding towns and villages. In that instant, the mission of Bahamas Habitat grew exponentially.

Less than 48 hours after the dust began to settle, the first island-based Bahamas Habitat pilot was dropping off supplies in Port-Au-Prince, and by the next day, Steve Merritt and another North Carolina pilot had flown from the Tar Heel state to Florida, and then on to Nassau. There they picked up a doctor and a nurse and filled nearly every inch of the remaining space in a donated Baron with medical supplies and made the first of  many runs to Cap Haitien, Haiti.

Critically needed supplies being delivered in Cap Haiten, Haiti

By the third day four planes were flying, carrying supplies and medical help in and bringing people out.  As the volunteer response accelerated, a temporary “command center” was created at the Odyssey FBO in Nassau, run by young volunteers who quickly grew into the job. Over the next few months,  over 125 volunteer pilots of Bahamas Habitat flew over 400 missions and carried relief workers and tons of supplies to help alleviate the suffering and despair of Haitians.

Lives were saved and bodies repaired because of these pilots.  They saw a need and took action. They flew long days over water into uncertain and sometimes nearly chaotic conditions, missed meals, put avgas on credit cards and then slept on floors so that they could do it again the next day.

Later, Armstrong and Merritt and a number of the volunteers would travel once again, but this time to the Capitol Building in Washington, DC to receive the the 2010 Outstanding Achievement in Public Benefit Flying Award. If ever a group deserved such an honor, it was the pilots and volunteers of Bahamas Habitat.

To learn more about this outstanding group of volunteers, visit Bahamas Habitat.