by Cheri Cimmarrusti, Associate Executive Director
Over the span of nearly 23 years, I have come to be in awe of the daily power and importance of general aviation. Starting out as a part-time coordinator in 1997, my only knowledge of GA was a small plane that sometimes would fly over my house heading for the Santa Monica Airport. Not a nuisance, as some might think, but just a buzzing overhead that now and then caused me to look up. Needless to say, after over two decades, I look at those planes entirely differently!
During my years with AFW, I have seen the generosity of you, our pilots, take many forms. From the very beginning I saw pilots flying passengers from their hometowns, many in remote areas, to their medical appointments. It was incredible to see how these planes could be used for such good work. So many passengers stand out. Some who were not able to beat whatever they were fighting, but were given a chance by AFW pilots to get to the best treatment possible. The positive power of GA!
Passenger Lamar D. celebrating with some of the pilots who flew him at AFW’s 2000 Anniversary Fly-in.
Starting in 1999 thru 2001, Southern California pilots flew Lamar D. 104 times before he passed away from graft vs host disease as a result of a bone marrow transplant. Because he received treatment at UCLA, he flew into the Santa Monica Airport and became a favorite passenger of the staff. We became so attached to him that his memorial service was held at the Santa Monica Airport and attended by many of the pilots who flew him, all of the staff, and some of his medical personnel from UCLA. In 2000, Montana and Washington pilots started flying little Mariah S. from her home in Big Sandy, MT, for treatment of her neuroblastoma. She was given a very poor prognosis at the time; yet, she still flies follow-up appointments today for treatment of side effects from her earlier chemotherapy. It is so great to see this little toddler grown into a lovely young woman. The positive power of GA!
Young passenger Mariah in mom’s arms with Command Pilot Jim Long.
During April and May of 2003, AFW pilots flew missions for Marines and Navy personnel who had returned wounded from Iraq. They were going home for their 30-day convalescent leave, and, at that time, the military was not paying for or providing transportation. (This was changed shortly after these flights took place). Our pilots flew over 50 flights, and others were flown with mileage donated by our pilots and Frontier Airlines. This group of missions is one of the most memorable of my time at AFW, and was one of the biggest responses by our pilots ever. Because of the assistance AFW gave to these military personnel, my colleague and I were invited to a Marine Corps Ball and other festivities. We were actually seated at the table of the Marine Corps Commandant and General James Mattis, and attended a “thank-you” event at Mattis’s home at Camp Pendleton. (Those generals live well!) The positive power of GA!
In September of 2005, AFW pilots stepped up and helped relocate and reunify those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. While the event was quite some distance from our region, some pilots flew down to help. Others flew those who had been sent to a shelter set up in the Astrodome in Houston to another shelter outside Denver, CO. Pilot Don Ratcliff flew Alicia R. and her five children in his Pilatus from Dothan, LA to Las Vegas, NV to live with family after her home was destroyed. AFW pilots and GA pilots around the country were clamoring to help. Although we weren’t able to make a dent in the need due to the confusion surrounding the emergency response to this event, AFW still managed to complete 80 missions during that time! The positive power of GA!
Katrina survivors being relocated following the hurricane.
In December of 2010, 11 pilots took off from Salt Lake City bound for multiple remote sites in Utah with Santa Claus in tow! Loads of toys, clothes, and other goodies filled the planes. Our Utah Wing along with Santa’s helpers were there to ensure that kids received some extra special treatment for Christmas! Our Utah Wing continues those efforts having flown 232 Santa Flights since its beginning in 2005. Today those flights go to schools in need around Utah, and have been very popular with our pilots. The positive power of GA!
Utah Mission Santa with his elves.
It would be difficult to convey the impact our pilots have had using their planes to transport kids to camp with a variety of life-challenges. Burn survivors, kids with cancer, those with kidney disease or other life-threatening illnesses, and kids who are deaf and hearing impaired, are all given a ride to a summer camp. There they spend time having fun with others who are facing the same challenges they are. You only need to speak with a teenager after she has spent a week at a burn survivor camp when she shares with you that it’s the only time she ever feels comfortable wearing a bathing suit or shorts to understand the impact of these camps. The positive power of GA!
As a long-time staff person, I have cried tears over the loss of passengers like Gary S. who, as a young dad of two, lost his battle with cancer despite our efforts to help. I have jumped for joy at hearing the recent news that twelve-year old Ollie is in remission and currently cancer free – something the doctors didn’t really think would ever happen. There are so many stories that I sometimes think I should write a book! Not only do the passengers and pilots of AFW touch my heart daily, but I am so appreciative of the value of our GA planes as well. The positive power of GA!
And to cap it off, let me share with you a few stats of our recent COVID-19 relief flights. These flights helped keep our pilots flying when passenger missions were paused. Now that we are back to flying patients, for those pilots who aren’t yet ready to carry passengers, the relief flights are a way for them to contribute to our mission. AFW pilots have flown 404 COVID relief missions in CO, UT, AZ, NM, CA, WY and one out of Calgary, Canada. Two-hundred-and-forty pilots have contributed their valuable time and treasure to these efforts – some to help deliver PPE to hospitals in Colorado and other states. These pilots have improved the lives of many on the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Hulapai and San Juan Paiute Reservations with donated water, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, produce, pet food and more! Northern California pilots took to the skies on August 7th and delivered to two community food banks three tons of produce. This food was destined to be thrown out or destroyed by farmers who have an excess of crops due to the closure of restaurants impacted by COVID-19. In total since March, we have flown 53 tons of PPE, food, and other critical supplies to those in need. The positive power of GA!
I am proud to be associated with all of you who have made this happen over the years! My thanks! Blue skies! Ciao – Cheri