Written by Gere Gaige
For worthy causes, perhaps these days our veterans are the fastest growing group in need of help – both in numbers – and in the variety of needs they have, especially the younger ones. These wounded warriors come home to us with everything from PTSD to bodies maimed and with missing limbs.
The Veteran’s Airlift Command https://greatnonprofits.org/org/veterans-airlift-command is a nationwide network of more than 3,000 volunteer aircraft owners and pilots that use empty seats in their airplanes (corporate or private) to transport veterans and their family members when there is a need. https://www.veteransairlift.org/
Typical missions are travel from VA rehab facilities to family homes for weekends of rest and visitation, or transport of families to visit veteran members in VA treatment facilities. Many of these flights include the service dog assigned to the veteran. Pilots are given the “Hero Flight” callsign to use during the missions and the FAA traffic controllers honor the veteran’s service by giving the highest priority when they can. Fuel sellers at airports where we land provide VIP parking and a fuel discount for the pilots. It is always a satisfying experience to host a veteran or his family aboard your airplane.
My most memorable flight took place on a dark winter night when the call came to my area for a veteran in the VA rehab facility near Atlanta GA. The grandmother who had raised him was dying in North Carolina. I dispatched from my South Carolina airport and picked him up in Atlanta about 2000 (8 p.m.), three hours after the call had come in. About 2300, we touched down at the Rock Hill Airport in North Carolina on a moonless night. The airport was closed, all fence gates and building doors locked and no way for us to get him off the flight ramp and to his relatives waiting in the parking lot. No way to climb the razor wire topped fence either.
A call to local 911 brought the sheriff to open the gates, and in less than an hour, he was at his grandmother’s hospital bedside. The call to return him to his rehab after the weekend found me picking him up one sunny morning on a much better day. He told me his grandmother was awake when he reached her, and he was able to say goodbye just a few hours before she passed. The weekend was spent properly grieving and celebrating her life with other family members. He was so grateful that his military service – and his injuries keeping him in Atlanta – had not kept him from saying farewell and being at her side when she died.
After dropping him back in Atlanta that day, during the flight alone back to my home airport in South Carolina, I reflected on this Midland boy – drinking the water while earning his pilot’s certificate at Midland Air Park and Terminal airports in 1965. Now, after more than 50 years of flying, including the dust and winds of those early days, USAF fighter-trainers, 2,000 hours as an instructor pilot and more than 6,000 hours flight experience – no flight had more impact on me than that one. I felt our wounded warrior and his family had the same feeling about the “Hero Flight” we had just shared.