Getting his pilot’s license may have been the best decision Charles George ever made. And it’s not just because he gets to fly overhead in his Mooney M20C, looking down at different places around the Southeast. It’s because that airplane actually helps more people than he could have ever imagined.
George, a volunteer pilot for Mercy Flights, a nonprofit that offers free air travel to patients who need regular treatment at medical facilities, will have that airplane on display at this year’s Cracker Fly In from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 7, at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.
George stumbled on Mercy Flights in 2007 when he heard about a group meeting at the Gwinnett County Airport where he was keeping his plane at the time. As soon as he found out its purpose, he knew he had to get involved.
“This is the proper use of an airplane; this is what you do when you have a license,” said George, who lives in Buford but keeps his plane in Gainesville. “So I joined them and started picking up missions.”
He checks his email each day to see the missions available in the area. They’re broken down into legs, or smaller chunks of travel, so he doesn’t have to pilot the whole trip himself.
“My first mission … I flew down to Macon and flew an elderly couple with serious medical issues to Knoxville, Tennessee,” George said. “It was probably the roughest flight I’ve ever had. It was rough, just beat me up, and wasn’t comfortable at all. But that was the start.”
That rough first flight didn’t stop George from flying. George said Mercy Flights has named him pilot of the year for the state of Georgia for the past six years.
He said he usually likes to pick up as many legs as he can throughout the year, which has helped him earn that title. The number of legs can range anywhere from five to 25 legs.
“I look at the missions that might be a good fit for me, they’re close enough to Gainesville, I can get there and pick up the patient, take them to wherever they need to go and then take them back home again,” George said. “And, of course, we get our favorite patients.”
One of those patients lives in the Orlando, Florida, area. George said the patient has an advanced stage of cancer and is a perfect candidate for Mercy Flights. Because he can’t work due to the cancer, he can’t afford to purchase a round-trip plane ticket to Nashville where he’s treated every three weeks.
So whenever that patient’s name pops up, George tries to help out with one of the legs between Florida and Tennessee.
He’s had some health problems of his own that make Mercy Flights a little more personal than it does to others. George said he served in Vietnam for two years where he was exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the war to remove forest cover and crops. He developed prostate cancer because of it. He eventually had a triple heart bypass as well.
Despite all of that, he said his goal is to “be of maximum service to God and my fellow man.” So he’ll keep flying for Mercy Flights as long as he can.
“It’s a gratifying thing to do,” George said. “It’s a fun experience, and it feels good to help somebody in need. They’re always grateful and it’s keeping them alive, so that’s my contribution to my fellow man. It’s a good excuse to fly, too.”