As a corporate pilot for a construction company, Pete Tobin of Chicago flies people to their destinations in his Columbia 350 all the time — but there’s a certain passenger he won’t forget.
It’s a little girl, who is mute, who he often flies back and forth to Cleveland as a volunteer for Wings of Mercy.
“She has no problem communicating,” Tobin said. “There’s never been a point I haven’t known what she wanted.”
Wings of Mercy is a nonprofit, volunteer pilot organization based in Zeeland, Michigan. It provides free flights to people who need transportation to distant medical facilities and can’t afford to travel to them. More than 350 pilots provide flights anywhere from the Rocky Mountains to the east coast.
Tobin has provided more than 30 flights to people with cancer, multiple sclerosis and other medical issues, and on two occasions has flown people home to take their last breaths surrounded by their family.
It’s his way of making the world a better place, he said, adding he flies for Wings of Mercy about once a month. Often Tobin becomes Facebook friends with his passengers and keeps in touch with parents of the children he flies, who like to send him drawings of the plane or even homemade Christmas cards.
“I get more out of it than they do; it’s just nonstop fun,” he said. “You pick up a girl … she’s been in the hospital for the last three weeks, can’t wait to get home to her family and friends. I get her home in an hour-and-a-half when it took her six hours to drive there.”
Tim Fino of Detroit, another Wings of Mercy pilot, will take off in May 2016 to fly around the world to raise awareness about the organization. He transports people twice a month in his Piper Seneca II, he said.
The pilots never accept payment from a passenger — instead they are reimbursed for the cost of fuel with help from Wings of Mercy donors. Tobin shared he does, however, accept hugs, cupcakes (one girl always bakes them for their trip) and airplane drawings.
A flight costs $800 on average, said Grace Spelde, Wings of Mercy flight director, adding the organization has provided about 8,000 flights since it was established in 1991.
“What we say is for every dollar that’s donated on the ground, it pays for about a mile’s worth of fuel in the air,” she said.
While Tobin donates his time and airplane, it’s not the only organization he volunteers for.
He and another pilot, Karen Johnson, have rescued more than 220 animals combined with Pilots N Paws, another nonprofit organization that transports animals from places where they’d be euthanized to rescues around the country.
Johnson recalled a flight where poor weather conditions kept two of the three pilots grounded during a mission to South Carolina. They had to rescue 25 animals — and those who wouldn’t fit in her plane would have been euthanized.
“We spent two-and-a-half hours figuring out how to squeeze the 25 animals in our plane so that they could all be rescued. We didn’t want to leave any to be euthanized,” Johnson said. “We were able to eventually figure out … how to arrange the crates so we could do it and then got them all back to Chicago where they went into various rescues.”
The satisfaction of saving an animal’s life is the reward, she said.
Mike Reddick of Fort Worth, Texas agreed. He and his wife, Mary, have participated in 26 flights, most of which have been transporting Corgis and Wire Fox Terriers in their Vans RV-6A.
“It’s really surprising that they’re not scared; they usually just curl up and go to sleep,” Mary Reddick said. “It’s really amazing. It’s like they sense that better days are ahead.”
To learn more about Wings of Mercy, visit wingsofmercy.org. If you’re at EAA, visit exhibitor booth 2056 in hangar B.
To learn more about Pilots N Paws, visit pilotsnpaws.org.