Veterans Airlift Command: Volunteers Flying Vets
To celebrate our country's freedom and give a personal thank you to those who serve in uniform, become a volunteer pilot for Veterans Airlift Command.
It all started a few decades ago in a place 8500 miles away. Walt Fricke was in the copilot’s seat of an Army helo in the midst of the chaos of a combat assault in Vietnam. When the crew fired the air-to-ground rockets, one exploded leaving the tube. Shrapnel blasted into one of Walt’s legs, “I grabbed my knee and my foot flipped around and landed backwards on my lap.”
By the 1970s, medical technology had leapt forward to the point that not only could Fricke be saved, but he wouldn’t lose his leg. However, while treatment had advanced dramatically, Fricke’s had to take place in a hospital 700 miles from his family and fiancÚ. They weren’t wealthy and it took them some months to save up the money to travel the distance to visit him. Walt told us that he lay in the hospital wondering whether he’d live and, if so, whether he’d lose his leg, dealing as best he could with what was probably PTSD. Finally, his family was able to visit and, as Walt put it, “That’s when the healing started.”
Walt Fricke’s experience with the pain, shock, disorientation and trauma of being wounded in combat and being treated in a place strange to him, away from family stayed with him—an integral part of his life. When he retired from the business world, he decided to do something to help other wounded combat veterans using tools he had at hand, his pilot certificate, a general aviation airplane and experience in the world of charities created to help others.
Fricke founded the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC) (www.veteransairlift.org), a nonprofit public benefit flying organization dedicated to the sole purpose of providing free air transportation for military veterans wounded after the 9/11 attacks and their families for medical and other compassionate services. Since its inception in 2006, Fricke’s brainchild has transported some 14,000 passengers and has 500 volunteer pilots in 45 states.
As with all other public benefit flying organizations, VAC is able to provide its free flights through the unselfish actions of pilots and aircraft owners who make the flights and pay for each one out of their own pockets.
To become a volunteer pilot for VAC, it’s a matter of going to the website and filling out an application. The required qualifications for volunteer pilots are straightforward—an instrument rating and no history of certificate suspension or revocation. The website notes that due to the length of many of the needed flights, most require turbine or high-performance piston aircraft and the VAC requests that flights be made with two pilots to increase the level of safety.
The VAC is serious about flight safety and was one of the major contributors to the creation of the AOPA online course that is directed at pilots volunteering in the public benefit flying (PBF) world, Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion. It is also actively involved with other volunteer pilot organizations through the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella organization that exists to support all public benefit flying organizations through such efforts as helping volunteer pilots find the right organization to fly for, match persons who need the services provided by PBF organizations get the help they need and serve as a networking and clearinghouse for information PBF organizations need to perform their missions.
Once a pilot has joined the VAC, he or she will start receiving emails regarding requests from a mission coordinator at the VAC with details of trips that have been requested by wounded vets. The pilot can then volunteer for flights she or he can make—always recognizing that safety of flight is the first consideration and any flight can be postponed or canceled.
Veterans Airlift Command asks that wounded veterans (and their families and close friends) needing transportation contact the VAC as early as possible and fill out an online Travel Request Form—the more notice the VAC has, the higher the probability that it can match a vet with a pilot for a flight. In general, those requesting transport must be able to sit upright for three hours at a time and be physically able to make the trip—the VAC has carried some 14,000 passengers and will work with each vet to discuss his or her physical ability and needs to smooth the transportation process. As we researched this article, we were told of volunteer pilots and aircraft owners who had the ability (and determination) to go to amazing lengths to transport severely wounded vets.
VAC volunteer pilot Doug Abney has been flying wounded vets in a Pilatus PC-12 for over four years. He told us that he’s observed that the Veterans Administration has some excellent specialized treatment facilities for wounded vets and that it pays for treatment at those facilities. However, it has no funds available to pay to get vets to and from the specialized care facilities. As a result, for vets who cannot afford to travel for treatment, “I can use my ability to fly to help someone who needs special assistance and care.” He told us about his most recent flight in which he transported a Marine who had lost both legs at the pelvis as the result of an enemy bomb. The vet required a motorized scooter to get around. Abney explained that with a little ingenuity, volunteers used a modified ramp designed originally for getting motorcycles on and off pickup trucks and a forklift to get the Marine and his scooter in and out of the PC-12—which has a large cargo door. Abney said that the ramp could be folded up and stored in the airplane and that most FBOs have access to forklifts if one calls ahead. He praised the Deming, New Mexico airport where he landed for a rest stop. The employees at the city-owned airport scrambled over to the city transport yard and were able to come up with a forklift on short notice.
Abney also had very kind words for the Signature FBOs he’d stopped at when flying for VAC as the managers at each one had the authority and were willing to waive their steep ramp fees when he was transporting wounded vets.
Abney told us that he loves to fly and is glad to be able to use his skills and time to help our country’s veterans rather than just getting a $100 hamburger. Each flight he makes to help a vet is intensely satisfying. In a very quiet voice, he told us how it hurts to look at a list of flights needed for vets and to be unable to volunteer to fly more flights, knowing that there aren’t enough volunteer pilots and some vets will not get needed transportation.
Walt Fricke said that he’d like to have 10,000 volunteer pilots so that VAC could connect every vet who needed transportation with a pilot. He said that between 10 and 20 percent of the time it is able to buy an airline ticket for the wounded vet to assure needed transportation. However, that is not always an ideal solution as vets that are physically able to get in and out of general aviation airplanes with assistance may not be able to do so given the narrow aisles of some airliners.
Both Abney and Fricke told us the flights they’ve made in conjunction with VAC have been the most personally rewarding flying they’d ever done. While we may support our troops with ribbons and posters, volunteering to fly our veterans through the VAC is a way to personally engage with and be involved in our country’s mission and write a very personal thank you to those who serve.
We were moved by one veteran who’d been wounded by a bomb and had been struggling during his recovery. After being flown for treatment by a VAC volunteer said, “Not everyone is trying to blow you up—the world is good.”
To volunteer to fly for VAC or to make a donation to help it conduct its mission, go to www.vetransairlift.org. For more information about how you can use your skills and aircraft to help others through public benefit flying, go to the Air Care Alliance’s website: www.aircarealliance.org.
Rick Durden is a CFII and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, has been a volunteer pilot for public benefit flying organizations for over 25 years and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.