Ex-Army Pilot Flies Friendly Skies To Help Others
October 30, 2009
- Boyer is a Mercy Flight Southeast pilot, volunteering his Cessna 310 to provide free airplane transportation for sick children and adults.
- "This is something that I can do to give back."
- I could do two to three flights a day if I had the time. Most of my flight time is on weekends and in the evenings."
- "The children who are suffering from health problems are the ones who really hook you and bring you in."
Flying the skies is more than a hobby for pilot Dennis Boyer.
It's also an affirmation of life, a chance to help someone who is suffering, an opportunity to touch someone coping with threatening health issues.
Boyer is a Mercy Flight Southeast pilot, volunteering his six-seat, twin engine Cessna 310 to provide free airplane transportation for children and adults who need transportation for medical care in facilities hundreds of miles from Huntsville. He has also provided compassionate flights for Soldiers who need quick transportation to visit a dying relative.
"This is something that I can do to give back," said Boyer, the chief engineer for the Kiowa Warrior Product Office, Program Executive Office for Aviation.
"I've taken a lot of patients to M.D. Anderson in Houston for cancer treatments. I've made a lot of flights with children out to South Carolina to the Shriners Hospital. And a lot to Memphis to the Memphis Children's Hospital and to St. Jude's Children's Hospital."
Mercy Flight Southeast is affiliated with the nationwide Angel Flight program. Its volunteer pilots provide transportation for transplant programs, medical care, compassionate care, domestic violence relocations and disaster relief.
Boyer, who served as a chief warrant officer 2, flew OV-1 Mohawk airplanes in Germany for the Army from 1968 to 1972. In 2002, he began flying for Mercy Flight Southeast and is one of 45 Mercy Flight pilots in the organization's Alabama Wing. There are 15 pilots in the Decatur/Huntsville/Albertville area.
"I moved to Huntsville in 1997. I taught a young friend of mine (Huntsville resident David Knies) who wanted to learn how to fly. He became a board member for Angel Flight and got me involved. I've flown about 60 Mercy Flights," he said.
Though his flight plans are usually in the Southeastern U.S., Boyer has flown Mercy Flight missions as far north as northern Minnesota and Maine, as far west as Texas and as far east as Washington, D.C.
"I do two to three flights a month," he said. "But I could do two to three flights a day if I had the time. Most of my flight time is on weekends and in the evenings."
Most of Mercy Flight passengers have medical problems that make it necessary for them to travel for diagnosis or treatment and who lack the financial resources for that transportation. Mercy Flight will also transport, without regard to financial need, people whose condition or location makes it difficult or impossible for them to use other means of transportation. Typical examples include flying cancer patients for chemotherapy, surgery or other treatment at a distant medical facility; transporting people with kidney problems to obtain dialysis or kidney transplants and patients with heart problems for specialized diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; and carrying children to and from "special needs camps" such as camps for burn survivors and children with life-threatening illnesses.
"We'll fly anyone who needs transport for medical or compassionate reasons," he said. "But the children who are suffering from health problems are the ones who really hook you and bring you in."
For that reason, Boyer tries to make a child's Mercy Flight a trip to remember.
"With kids you expect them to be more apprehensive. Flying is something they don't normally do," he said. "I want to give them a smooth ride, no matter what altitude it takes. On a cloudy day, I like to get through the clouds and then clip the tops of the clouds as we're flying. It gets the kids laughing."
He also gives young passengers a special gift, a stuffed animal from the menagerie his wife Elisa has packed in his flight bag. Seth Johnson of Albertville, who Boyer has flown to the Shriner's Hospital in Greenville, S.C. for treatment for cerebral palsy, is a recipient of a plush reindeer from Boyer's stash.
Sometimes young passengers cause Boyer to go on a special mission.
One little girl with leukemia needed a flight home from Memphis on the Fourth of July. It was the first time that the little girl's eyesight was good enough for her to see long distances.
"I flew her up and down the Mississippi River to see the fireworks," Boyer recalled.
"There was another little girl, a 12-year-old, who I flew to St. Louis (Mo.). She had never seen the arches or downtown. I flew her right up the river to the arches. Things like that make it memorable for the kids."
Boyer also pays special attention to the parents of young children who fly on a Mercy Flight.
"I flew an 18-month-old and her parents up to Springfield, Mo. The little girl didn't have a soft spot on the top of her head and needed surgery," he said. "I noticed her parents were looking really ragged, really tired. I asked them if they were hungry and we all ended up going to Lambert's (home of the throwed rolls) and we had a great time that lifted their spirits."
Boyer has also flown medical and other supplies for emergency relief efforts, such as Hurricane Katrina.
"I flew my plane into Mobile loaded down with medical supplies and toothbrushes, wash clothes, Band-Aids, iodine and all kinds of stuff," he said.
At about $250 per hour for fuel, insurance, and wear and tear, being a Mercy Flight pilot gets quite expensive. But it's a cost Boyer shoulders as often as possible.
"It's a good feeling to be able to help somebody like that," he said. "The payback is awesome, especially with the kids. When you see them laughing and having a good time, it's all worth it. Sometimes I'll get a thank you card. Sometimes people will try to write me a check. But I tell them 'No, make a donation to Mercy Flight instead.'"
Boyer also volunteers his time as an accountant for the U.S. Figure Skating Association. His wife Elisa, a contracting officer in the AMCOM Contracting Center, is a judge for the association. The couple often fly Boyer's plane to figure skating competitions. Boyer is also known for flying the OV-1 Mohawk in air shows for the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation. He is a flight instructor and an aircraft power plant mechanic.
"Mostly, though, I fly children to children's hospitals and cancer patients to M.D. Anderson," he said. "We really need more pilots. And this is very rewarding for me."
Editor's note: Those needing the services of Mercy Flight Southeast can call the Mission Request Hotline at 888-744-9360. For more information on becoming a Mercy Flight pilot or to donate to the organization, call 352-326-0800 or visit its website at http://www.mercyflightse.org.