Pilot Corkey Romeo has flown many missions — military, corporate and civilian — but the one he flew on Oct. 1 will leave him soaring for quite some time.
That afternoon, he flew a wounded veteran of the Iraq War to the veteran’s home in Bloomington, Ind., after treatment for a traumatic brain injury at UPMC-Presbyterian in Pittsburgh.
Romeo, of Beaver, is the founder of Wings for Vets, a nascent group of five local and retired commercial airline pilots, all but one of whom served in the military. They support the nonprofit Veterans Airlift Command — a much larger network of volunteer pilots across the country who provide free transportation to post-9/11 wounded warriors needing treatment or rehabilitation at medical facilities.
The pilots, who volunteer their own planes and time, receive neither pay for their services nor compensation for fuel or related aircraft expenses, relying on donations to support their missions.
Often, they reach into their own pockets to cover costs, as Romeo did on the Oct. 1 mission — about $550 in round-trip fuel.
He appreciates veterans’ sacrifices and volunteers for altruistic reasons.
A retired Air Force captain, he flew B-52s during the Vietnam War but considers himself fortunate. Much of the country’s war efforts were winding down in 1974 when he flew missions out of Thailand and Guam. And most of those he piloted were a show of strength and might rather than combat.
“We never dropped any bombs,” he said. “The bombing had stopped.” Aloft at 30,000 feet, it was a “sterile” environment, he said, unlike what ground soldiers faced daily.
“The air war in Vietnam, at least for me, was quite calm compared to the guys on the ground. On the ground, they’re in the nitty-gritty of it. At 30,000, 35,000 feet, you don’t see exactly what you’re doing there. So, these guys are involved with it day in, day out.
We fly our mission, we go home, back to the barracks, couple days off, and we fly another mission. Those guys are in combat 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
It’s “time to give back,” he said. “The whole concept — for me anyway — is vets helping vets. … It feels really neat to be able to help other veterans — get them to and from the treatment they need to help them get better.”
After about 13 years in the Air Force, Romeo piloted corporate jets for Sara Lee for 21Ž2 years before joining then-USAir in 1986, first as a commercial pilot and later as a flight training and safety manager. He retired from US Airways in 2007 to become director of aviation sciences at the Community College of Beaver County and retired from that last year.
Romeo owns his own plane, a six-seat, twin-engine Cessna 310 that’s housed in a 50-by-50-foot hangar at the Beaver County Airport in Chippewa Township. He bought the plane four years ago, primarily for Wings for Vets.
“I started down this road about five years ago,” he said, when he got the idea to assemble a group of local pilots for humanitarian efforts. He’d devote time here and there to the project, but sometimes life gets in the way, Romeo said.
“It started in a piecemeal manner, and it’s grown to the point now that we’re finally ready to fly missions,” he said.
Army Spc. James Smith was his first passenger, along with Smith’s sister and caretaker, Jennifer Mackinday, and Steel, his service dog. Romeo removed the plane’s two rear seats to give the Labrador retriever more room.
Smith was injured Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber attacked a mess hall in which he was dining. Fourteen servicemen died. The blast cost Smith partial hearing loss. A month later while on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, the armored vehicle he was driving struck an improvised explosive device. Smith suffered traumatic brain and spinal compression injuries and required reconstruction of his left elbow.
Sept. 28, a pilot with Veterans Airlift Command flew Smith, Mackinday and Steel to Pittsburgh for treatment at UPMC. Romeo flew them home three days later.
“It was a huge blessing,” Mackinday said.
The kind of care and treatment Smith requires isn’t available in southern Indiana, she said. To drive eight hours to Pittsburgh and back would take two days and require frequent stops because of Smith’s spinal injuries. He can’t sit for long periods.
And traveling on a commercial airline is difficult for him, Mackinday said — going through the security process, navigating a large and crowded airport with his mobility issues, the noisy environment and enduring the stares of strangers.
With his service dog and bags of medical equipment, Smith’s wounds are visible.
“You get a lot of folks who don’t understand,” she said. “A lot stare. It makes you feel like you stick out.”
Plus, the high-altitude pressure of jets flying at 35,000 to 40,000 feet — “that’s hard on people with brain injuries,” she said. “Smaller planes fly lower. That’s a lot less pressure.”
Wings for Vets is a godsend, one that Mackinday highly praised.
“He had water and snacks for us, a place in the plane for our dog, handled all our luggage,” she said of Romeo. “They treated us like first class.”
When her brother first returned home after being wounded, “he felt pretty isolated.”
The military, Mackinday said, prepares combat soldiers and their families for the possibility of death.
“You really don’t know what it’s like if they get wounded,” she said. “It’s a pretty big job to take care of a family member so seriously wounded. … People like Corkey make us feel like we’re not alone.”
Veterans Airlift Command was founded in 2006 by Walt Fricke, a retired Army aviator who flew combat missions in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Based in St. Louis Park, Minn., VAC acts as a dispatching agent for volunteer pilots and pilot groups such as Wings for Vets, Romeo said, posting available missions on its website.
While VAC provides free flights to post-9/11 combat veterans, Romeo said Wings for Vets will transport veterans of any war or conflict who require medical treatment to hospitals or rehabilitation centers within a 600-mile range.
His Cessna, which holds 140 gallons of fuel, can fly 61Ž2 hours to dry tank. The plane burns 22 to 25 gallons an hour at approximately $6 a gallon, he said.
“It starts adding up in a hurry,” Romeo said of costs.
“I don’t anticipate us going down to Florida and picking someone up and coming up here,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense.”
The majority of wounded veterans have traumatic brain injuries, spinal injuries and amputations. Some, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder, find it difficult to fly on commercial airlines, Romeo said, which is where Wings for Vets can help.
But for Wings for Vets to transport them, “all of our veterans have got to be ambulatory. As you can see, they have to be able to get in and out of airplanes like this.”
Presently, he’s working on securing nonprofit status for Wings for Vets to receive corporate and private donations to fund fuel and operating expenses and is working on getting grants to facilitate missions.
He’s counting on his military brethren to help, too.
“I’d love to have their support. A lot of veterans live in this area. It’s kind of unique,” Romeo said of Beaver County. “It says a lot to this area for service to country.”