March 25, 2019


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

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

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.

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.

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.