January 2014 Hero of the Month: Veterans Airlift Command
The general aviation community has for decades stepped up whenever and wherever needed to provide humanitarian assistance. From Angel Flight (www.angelflight.com) to help those with serious medical problems needing specialized care, to the Make A Wish Foundation (www.wish.org) for children with terminal cancer going on once in a lifetime trips, to those providing missionary service in Mexico and Central America; the pilots and the aircraft owners who participate willingly do so every day taking off somewhere in America, without fanfare or any recognition from the rest of us.
Our Hero of the month, Veterans Airlift Command, was founded by Walt Fricke, who exemplifies the best of the best and has taken his commitment to help others farther than even he himself probably thought when he started on a one man quest to help our wounded warriors from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Walt himself is a decorated Army helicopter pilot who flew several hundred missions in Vietnam before experiencing severe leg injuries. As a 20-year- old, Walt spent six months in a military hospital a long way from home and his family. His condition deteriorated until his family was able to gather the financial resources to be with him at his hospital.
Walt went on to be a senior executive at GMAC, a major financial subsidiary of General Motors, and was well known in aviation circles as a member of the Trojan Horseman demonstration team, flying vintage warbirds.
After he retired, Walt read stories about wounded warriors and their families who had experiences in military hospitals that were similar to his own. He decided that they needed help. Using his personal Rolodex, Walt started Veterans Airlift Command with a single goal: to provide air transportation for medical and other compassionate purposes to wounded warriors, veterans, and their families through a nationwide network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. All the flights, fuel and operating costs are contributed by the aircraft owners.
Launched in 2006, Veterans Airlift Command now has 1,500 pilots who have provided their aircraft and time flying over 6,000 wounded warriors and their families over 3 million miles, bringing wounded warriors and their families together and making their travel comfortable. The pace of their activities has grown with the growth of the organization and its supporters. In 2013 alone, they flew 1,650 combat wounded veterans and their families. In the pictures that accompany this article you will see a small snapshot of what VAC does. In the video at the page bottom, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) honors VAC as it transports its 10,000th passenger.
Several stories of VAC missions help illustrate the importance of what Walt and VAC have accomplished. One of the earliest catalysts for the creation of VAC was the experience a young injured Marine had while traveling from his home in Melbourne Florida to North Carolina to receive his Purple Heart and other combat medals. The trip took 13 hours and required four layovers. By the time our Marine got to the ceremony he was exhausted. Walt heard about his situation and arranged for our wounded warrior to fly home on a private aircraft. “We flew him home in two and a half hours, nonstop,” Walt said. VAC’s website tells the story of VAC volunteer Kelly Bruun transporting Staff Sgt. Jesse Slotte, who had 49 operations after grenades and artillery shells exploded near him in Iraq. VAC has flown double and single amputees to marathons where they have participated as runners. Lear 25 owner/pilot Roger Claypool flew Sgt. Eric McManus, his wife, baby and in-laws to a reunion with his unit members at Fort Bragg. Sgt. McManus is paralyzed from the waist down from a sniper’s bullet in Iraq.
Along the way, VAC has fortunately received the recognition it deserves and that recognition has helped grow the organization. For example, in 2010 Walt and VAC received the prestigious Laurence P. Sharples Perpetual Award from the the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), the leading organization representing private pilots and aircraft owners in America. The award is given to private citizens who have demonstrated the greatest selfless commitment to general aviation. In 2013, Aviation Week and Space Technology, the leading publication of its kind in the world, gave Walt and VAC one of their Annual Laureate Awards, which is one of the most coveted awards in the aviation community. The FAA has now given VAC flights the official call sign “Hero Flights” so that air traffic controllers across America know when they have these very special wounded warriors under their guidance and provide priority handling whenever possible.
In 2011, Cessna built and delivered a Citation Mustang business jet named the “American Patriot” to fly VAC missions.
This story took a personal turn for me while I was doing the research on VAC for this article. Our family owns an industrial building in Albuquerque New Mexico that we lease to Eclipse Aviation who uses it in building major structures of their Eclipse business jet (www.Eclipse.aero). In 2011, an Eclipse owner donated their jet to VAC, and Eclipse Aerospace agreed to upgrade the aircraft at their own expense to the current Eclipse 550 standard. Considering that Eclipse is a small company compared to Cessna, this is no small commitment. But it didn’t stop there. Eclipse reached out to its family of customers who fly the 260 jets it has manufactured, and the Eclipse Owners Club has now joined VAC and are donating their planes to fly VAC missions. Julie and I extend our heartfelt appreciation to Mason Holland, Chairman and CEO, and to his Eclipse Team; we are donating $10,000 per year for the next 5 years to honor the efforts of the VAC and our heroic warriors. — Jim