““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
When charities take flight
Charities that use aviation are legion, with hundreds plying the skies every day on behalf of sick, poor and disaster-affected people worldwide. Here’s a look at just a few of these organizations.
Air Care Alliance
For a sky-bound view of the landscape of charity flying, there is no better place to start than Air Care Alliance, a group of charitable organizations that work with volunteer pilots to help people in need. ACA acts as a clearinghouse for flight requests. Often, people have heard that charitable flights are available, but they don’t know how to find local organizations offering them, so ACA gets the initial call. “Our website takes care of a tremendous number of people getting into this for the first time,” said ACA executive director Rol Murrow. “Our primary duty is to support and promote public-benefit flying.”
Murrow has a philosophical view of why so many pilots donate time and aircraft to charitable missions. “Pilots feel blessed that they have this special ability to enjoy flying and want to share that with others and benefit others,” he said. “Every time there has been a disaster, there has been an outpouring of help from the aviation community. Our job is to channel that in useful directions.”
ACA members mostly provide short flights on small aircraft but, said Murrow, “we have lots of patients who need long-distance transport. Some need stretcher care or reclining seats and some are immune deficient and can’t go on airlines.” But typically the regional charities don’t use business jets, and the one charity that works directly with business jet operators–Corporate Angel Network–flies only cancer patients. “There are a variety of operations where jet aircraft would be of great use,” Murrow said, “and Air Care Alliance would be helpful to broker that kind of activity.”
Another great need, he added, is for transporting patients who may require care in flight. Only one U.S.-based organization, Grace on Wings, flies an air-ambulance-equipped airplane, a Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop.
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, the lack of response by the U.S. government prompted a group of aviators to form CARE (Corporate Aircraft Responding to Emergencies). The idea was that business aircraft often aren’t needed for their normal duties, and an organization like CARE could help arrange for them to be available for disaster relief flights.
After Katrina, the group’s five founders rounded up pilots and aircraft to fly first responders in and bring out victims. Their network proved enormously helpful after the Haiti earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. After that, CARE moved to incorporate, but changed its moniker to Aerobridge to avoid confusion with a similarly named charity.
“Private aviation is the fastest way to respond in a disaster,” according to Aerobridge president Marianne Stevenson, who is also CEO of Strategy Aero Group.
Aerobridge has set up five staging areas in the U.S., with pre-designated resources available for immediate response. The charity is always looking for donations and volunteers, but it’s not all about flying. One key need is for funds to pay for satellite phone service plans. “When you go to a disaster, you need communication,” Stevenson said. “But satellite phones can’t be turned on in the blink of an eye.”
Another service that Aerobridge provides is coordinating relief efforts and working with the U.S. Navy to help move supplies around the world. The group also assists other organizations in preparing for disasters. “The entire answer to a puzzle isn’t one facet,” Stevenson said. “It’s about being able to work between the available components. It’s irresponsible to tell someone that the only way to get there is by aircraft. What we’re principally designed to do is to react in a disaster.”
Corporate Angel Network
Many business jet flyers are familiar with Corporate Angel Network because the charity fills empty seats in their company aircraft with cancer patients who need to travel for treatment, as well as bone-marrow donors. While some such patients can fly on airlines, said executive director Peter Fleiss, many can’t because their immune systems are depleted. Doctors often forbid such patients to utilize the airlines, but they are able to obtain medical clearance for travel on a corporate jet.
CAN, which was founded 31 years ago, now transports about 250 patients every month. The charity’s 40,000th patient flew in May. More than 500 corporations participate, offering their empty seats or hours on fractional-share jets. Many of the participating companies are household names but don’t want to be identified, Fleiss said, and there is no tax benefit to donating an empty seat on an airplane that is already going somewhere. “They’re doing it from the goodness of their hearts,” he added.
While many pilots would gladly make seats on their company aircraft available for CAN flights, approval must come from upper management. “It’s amazing how many executives think it’s a good idea,” Fleiss said. “What’s even more interesting, they end up flying with a patient. Often the executives will introduce themselves to patients and start talking. When they hear what that patient has been through, they want to do more.”
Six employees, 35 volunteers and many donations make CAN run. The key to using donated seats effectively is software that matches patients with available seats. Additional legwork involves ensuring that patients have confirmed appointments and transportation at the destination. “We want it to be seamless to the corporation,” Fleiss explained. The software looks at departure and destination opportunities within 100 miles of the patient’s home and medical appointment locations. Those parameters can be adjusted if the patient is willing. CAN works closely with LimoLink for ground transport, and that company has donated many trips to CAN patients. “They have been wonderful to us,” Fleiss said.
CAN patients must be able to walk up and down the cabin entry stairs by themselves. “In the unlikely event there is an [incident], we don’t want the flight crew or executives to delay their exit because they have to help our patient off.”
One of CAN’s major fundraisers is a gala at the National Business Aviation Association convention every year. “We couldn’t do this without the enthusiasm of the corporations that participate,” Fleiss said. “They’re the ones that allow the patients onboard and get them to clinical trials and specialized treatment that they can’t get in their own area that can save their lives.”
The Orbis DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital is probably the biggest airplane in the world dedicated to public-benefit flights. Orbis turns the flying charity model around; instead of flying patients to aid, it brings aid to the patients.
“There are 39 million blind people in the world and 32 million of them don’t have to be,” said Orbis’ Jack McHale. Founder David Paton, a Houston ophthalmologist, knew that simple operations could restore sight to those 32 million, and the best way to help them would be to teach local doctors how to perform sight-restoring operations.
“Restoring sight is a known skill,” McHale said. “It’s not like looking for a cure for cancer. It’s relatively inexpensive and transforming. The best way to do it is on an airplane. It’s not just the airplane flying in to do surgeries and leaving. We train the whole team–nurses, surgeons, biomedical engineers who keep the equipment running and anesthesiologists.”
Paton and other doctors, aided by FlightSafety International founder A.L. Ueltschi and Betsy Trippe DeVecchi (daughter of Pan Am founder Juan Trippe), used a Douglas DC-8, donated by United Airlines, to launch Orbis’ aerial peregrinations in 1984. Ten years later, the organization replaced the DC-8 with a DC-10. McHale was working for FedEx, helping coordinate donated maintenance, spares and logistics services for Orbis, and FedEx founder Fred Smith asked him to manage the upgrade to the DC-10, which was paid for by contributions from Ueltschi, Hong Kong businessman Y.C. Ho and an anonymous donor.
Now FedEx has given the group an MD-10, which is a DC-10 upgraded with an MD-11 cockpit. It is being upgraded to the latest Flying Eye Hospital configuration, and will feature an operating room, recovery room, labs, an audio/visual studio and a classroom. Orbis is building all this functionality into nine large containers that can be loaded and unloaded through the MD-10’s massive cargo door.
“The airplane is a powerful advocate for our missions, to tell the world that there are 32 million people who could be cured,” McHale said. “It’s a door opener. It is the most unique airplane in the world. It’s humanitarian, a blending of aviation and medicine, and supported almost entirely by the aviation community.”
Orbis’ Flying Eye Hospitals have visited 77 countries in the past 30 years, and the charity and its partners have helped 90,000 doctors and 215,000 nurses and other medical personnel learn skills that have allowed them to treat 18.8 million people. “Orbis is one of those organizations that are taking their help and their work directly to the people that need it,” says actor Daniel Craig at the end of a promotional movie for the charity. “It’s as simple as that. When you give one child their sight back, you give them color, clouds, games, their mother’s face, the beauty of the landscape in which they live, you give them their life.”
If You Want to Help... Here’s how to contact the charities mentioned in this article:
Air Care Alliance: email@example.com, (888) 260-9707
Aerobridge: firstname.lastname@example.org, (951) 491-9827
Corporate Angel Network: email@example.com, (914) 328-1313
Orbis: firstname.lastname@example.org, (800) 672-4787