The sleek Lear 25 rocketed out of Modesto California and turned eastward into a crisp spring dawn, climbing four thousand feet a minute. Within minutes it caught the jet stream dead on the tail and boosted its already legendary speed. The crew grinned as the GPS ratcheted upward, soon indicating 565 knots ground speed at 39 thousand feet. Owner/pilot Roger Claypool, turned to the cabin and smiled at the passengers; “We’re doing 650 miles an hour, and we’ll arrive right on time.”
Aboard was Sergeant Eric McManus, his wife Danielle, year old baby and mother-in-law. The one thing McManus longed for was a reunion with his combat unit back in Ft. Bragg North Carolina. He had been rotated home a couple of months before his tour of duty in Iraq was over, and it came without the happiness one would expect. While on patrol McManus caught a sniper’s bullet in Baghdad. The slug impacted just above the armored chest plate of his flak jacket and tore into his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. His band of brothers, paratroopers of the 325th Airborne Battle Team of the famed 82d Airborne division awaited his return at Fayetteville Regional airport.
As might be expected, the pay of an airborne infantry sergeant isn’t at the top of the income ladder, so hiring a Lear isn’t the first means of transport that comes to mind. But cost wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t, because of the creation of Walt Fricke, founder, Chairman and CEO of Veteran’s Airlift Command…the VAC. Fricke is himself a veteran helicopter pilot of the war in Vietnam and so seriously wounded during a combat mission that he spent more than six months recovering in military hospitals.
Fricke’s brainchild was borne of the need for wounded warriors to get to hospitals providing continuing medical care and to provide a means of reconnecting with comrades and loved ones. The slogan of the VAC; “THEY’VE GOT HEART, THEY NEED WINGS” is thus, both telling and fitting. Hundreds of aircraft owners have signed on to provide cost-free transportation for wounded warriors and their families. In less than two years after inception, Fricke’s VAC has flown over 550 Passengers across the breadth and length of America. On this particular flight McManus was in good hands, as Roger Claypool is also a doctor, and Britt Easterling, Roger’s regular first officer, has experience attending disabled persons and therefore capable of tending to needs that may have arisen en route.
Faster than scat, the Lear still needs fuel half way across the continent, and in a tad over two hours we landed at Grayson County Airport in Denison Texas. Before departure, calls were made to en route FBOs to arrange handling. When the purpose of the flight was made known, the response was astounding. Heartfelt thanks and appreciation were immediate, as were fuel discounts and priority handling. Lake Texoma Jet Center, prime FBO at Grayson County, handled refueling quickly and topped things off by providing box lunches for all. Every employee of the FBO came forward to give thanks and good wishes to McManus and his family.
The FAA has also come on board for these flights. While you’ve likely heard of Angel Flights and Lifeguard, you may soon hear a new call sign, as the FAA has issued the call sign “Hero Flight” to aircraft transporting wounded warriors arranged through the VAC. Astoundingly, the FAA granted use of the special call sign just two weeks after application was made by the VAC, shortcutting a process typically requiring six months. Using this call sign, ATC grants priority handling whenever possible, and that’s done often according to pilots flying these missions.
Volunteers of the VAC, individuals and corporations alike, are of a similar mind; the incredible sacrifices made by these young soldiers for our country and for all Americans far outweigh the generosity of aircraft owners and crews. Bottom line; it’s just a little time and some gas.
Sgt. McManus, perhaps a bit shy, perhaps anxious about reuniting with comrades he hadn’t seen in many months, noticeably perks up on the approach to Fayetteville Regional Airport, next door to Ft. Bragg. It’s a bit of a reunion for co-pilot author Chuck Asbury of Sacramento as well, for during Korean War days he too was a paratrooper in the same unit as McManus, thus making a unique and comfortable bond between crew and passengers.
The Lear pulls up to the Landmark Aviation FBO ramp two hours after leaving Texas and precisely on the ETA. When the engines spin down and the door opens, McManus’ paratrooper pals run to the plane and give a tumultuous welcome. His anxiety vanishes instantly, the troops are jovial, happy and unrelenting in their greeting. The reunion is awesome and solid, and McManus too, is again happy.
Standing behind are two grizzled combat veterans, Captain Jason Gardel and Master Sergeant Jamie Nelson, members of McManus’ unit, who quietly grin broadly at the heart-tugging reception. As well, several ladies are present, wives of both officers and enlisted men, and all members of the family of soldiers and kin irrevocably bound together by war. Indeed, there were few dry eyes.
Many more troops will arrive in the following days, as entire units require several days to cycle from a distant continent to home. Many will bring more greetings for their friend Eric in the coming days. To the man, they will be pained by the thought that he will not likely ever again walk on his own in the land we call home.
You have the opportunity to join in the cause. Your aircraft and crews are needed, and the VAC is grateful for your participation. The VAC is a fully qualified 501c3 organization and as such, operational costs of missions are tax deductible. If you’re going to Oshkosh you’ll have a chance to check into things on a first hand basis, as the VAC will have a trailer parked near the Warbirds Café this year, so make it a point to drop by and meet Walt Fricke and his folks. Likewise, you can call Walt at (952) 582-2911, or check out their website: www.veteransairlift.org.