Some people in Columbia volunteer for an inner-city tutoring ministry; others serve the homeless; many beautify parks and other public spaces. There are myriad volunteer opportunities in the Columbia area, but one requires that volunteers be airborne.
Rusty Goudelock has been flying planes since he was 17 years old. “I grew up in Winnsboro, and flying a plane is something I always wanted to do,” he says. “My buddies saved up and bought cars, but I saved up and bought flying lessons.” For 12 years he’s owned a plane with Clayton Tapp, which they fly for recreation. When Clayton first told Rusty about Mercy Flight, they realized they could enjoy flying while helping people at the same time.
Mercy Flight is a non-profit organization that arranges for volunteer pilots to fly individuals to distant health care facilities for medical needs. Typically, patients who request Mercy Flight are unable to be treated in their local areas or are seeking specialists for particular health issues. In order to qualify for Mercy Flight, patients must express need and must be medically stable, ambulatory and capable of sitting upright and wearing seatbelts. They also must have medical releases from their doctors prior to flight. Volunteers donate their time, aircraft and gas.
Mercy Flight Southeast, which is the division that Clayton and Rusty are associated with, currently has around 1,000 active members made up of pilots and co-pilots located in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Mercy Flight Southeast flies about 1,500 missions each year.
Jack Schuler, a Mercy Flight Southeast volunteer pilot based in Hilton Head, has picked up patients around South Carolina and flown them to health care facilities in Columbia and other areas of the Southeast. He says he looks at the Mercy Flight Southeast website regularly to see what missions are scheduled, then he decides which ones he can sign up for. Jack volunteers for between six and 12 flights a year; Clayton and Rusty handle about that many as well.
Pilots fly within a 1,000 nautical mile total distance. If a facility is outside that distance, they arrange to meet another Mercy Flight pilot who will take the passenger on to the destination. For example, when a passenger from South Carolina needs to fly to the cancer clinic in Houston, Texas, a pilot from South Carolina might meet another pilot in Alabama. When Clayton and Rusty team up for a mission, one flies to the destination and the other flies back to Columbia.
The concept of “public benefit flying” emerged in the mid 1970s. Gradually, through a series of events and dedicated volunteers, an official organization was formed. Volunteer pilots were stretched to the limits after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, coordinating more than 700 missions to aid the survivors and relief personnel and to provide supplies. Since then, more than 3,000 people have been served.
Jack, like many others he knows, got the itch to fly in the Air Force. Afterwards, he was a salesman for Piper Aircraft and then Cessna. Currently, he owns a Piper Twin Comanche. Clayton and Rusty own a Piper Seneca twin-engine.
Volunteer pilots say that even though they are providing a free service to strangers in need, they often benefit personally from the experience. “As pilots, we love to fly,” Rusty says. “So when we can couple flying with doing something for others – well that makes it all so much better. It’s very rewarding for me personally. The people we take places are always so appreciative.”
Adds Clayton, “We’re blessed with the ability to own a plane, so why not give back to someone who has a burden?”
He remembers one flight he took with Clayton when they had to pick up two little girls at a camp for the disabled in North Carolina. The girls were about 10 and 12 years old, and their parents were waiting for them back home. “They hadn’t flown much,” says Rusty, “and it turned out to be a neat experience for us and for those girls.”
Often, patients using Mercy Flight services fly once, and the pilots never see them again. However, sometimes someone needs multiple treatments or check ups at a particular facility, and they and the pilots become better acquainted. Jack took a young couple with a toddler from Georgia to Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital several times for a particular treatment. Jack says it was nice to not only get to know the family during the flights, but to see the child’s progress and eventual healing. Each year during Christmas, the family sends a card with a photo of the child.
“It’s good to see children really enjoying the flights,” says Jack.
Many years ago, when he lived in the Northeast, he would pile children into his private plane during the Christmas season and fly them over Washington, D.C., to see the lights from the Capital’s Christmas tree reflecting on the snow. “Of course you can’t fly over Washington anymore since 9/11, but that was magical for children.”
Clayton and Rusty have established ongoing relationships with a few of their passengers. One of those is Lavern Ard, who lives near Florence. Over the past eight years he has had to be flown multiple times to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for cancer treatment. When he was first diagnosed, he was given six months to live with no opportunities for treatment near his home. The first time he flew to Cleveland, it was on a commercial flight that was expensive. In the hospital, someone came to his room and told him about Mercy Flight.
“My, they’ve been a lifesaver, literally,” says Lavern. “They’ve flown me to West Virginia at least a dozen times and then another Mercy Flight pilot takes me to the clinic. If it hadn’t been for them, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t have had the money to fly there for treatments.”
Lavern was so grateful for Mercy Flight that he raised $8,000 through a fundraiser. “To show you how the good Lord works, I had no idea they existed until someone came in my room and told me about them. They’re all so nice, and I’m so appreciative of this service.”
Lavern says that when he’s flown with Clayton and Rusty, they take a break at a little restaurant and order waffle sandwiches. The two pilots point out that many of their patients, including some World War II veterans, have interesting stories to tell while on their flights.
Although Clayton, Rusty and Jack primarily fly patients traveling to and from medical appointments, Mercy Flight also provides flights for transplant situations, domestic abuse cases, for adoption and foster care circumstances and for homeland security issues. Mercy Flight does not provide flights for funerals, Hospice visits or for people to visit sick friends or relatives.
For information or to make a donation to Mercy Flight, call (888) 744-8263, visit www.mercyflightse.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.