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July 03, 2003   Email to Friend 

Everyday Angels Fly Missions Of Mercy
Fran Sharp

The Rev. Mark Deeter and daughter, Christy, of Pennsylvania, arrive home after their harrowing ordeal. Five family members sustained injuries in a deadly rollover accident in South Dakota; two-year-old Stevie was killed.
The people who staff Pilots for Christ and Eagles' Wings Air Ambulance look like everyone else. They walk and talk, laugh and cry, stumble and fall, just like the next guy; but to the passengers they serve, they are angels, pure and simple.

Tommy Lee, Terry Chapman and E.J. Tenney--all experienced pilots--are founders of the Christian-based South Alabama Chapter of Pilots for Christ in Monroeville. Lee and Chapman, co-founders of the newly formed Eagles' Wings Air Ambulance, don't think of themselves or their colleagues as saints or angels. They're just doing what they feel the Lord wants them to do, as promised in the group's inspirational Bible verse: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," Matthew 25:40.

"God has shown us the way to help people," Lee explained. He is president of Pilots for Christ, established in 1994 by the three men as part of their mission work for the Lord. According to Lee, the group has been dependent on God's blessings and the good will of others for volunteer financing and staffing. "God has provided the funding when we thought there wouldn't be anymore, and the faith to keep the mission going," Lee said.

Angels? Rev. Mark Deeter dubbed the group angels in a letter thanking Lee and Chapman for an airplane trip fraught with sadness and hope. Last December, the Deeter family, Mark, Jennifer and their four children were involved in a rollover accident while visiting in South Dakota. Two-year-old Stevie died at the scene. His parents survived, as did Kevin, Christy and Benjamin, some with severe injuries. Pilots for Christ flew from Alabama to South Dakota, picked up the healing family and carried them home to Washington County, Pennsylvania.

Many letters of thanks were sent to the pilots and volunteers who helped the Deeters. One from Deeter read: "(Stevie) now is God's little Angel and I'm sure his flight was even more perfect than ours. You were (also) our Angels. Thank you so much. You will never know what you have meant to us as a family. You may not know us well, but God saw all that you did."

Pilots for Christ is a tax deductible, non-profit organization funded solely by donations from individuals, churches, businesses and others. It owns no planes, but relies on volunteers who freely offer theirs. At $3.50 a gallon for fuel, and 300 gallons for a typical trip, flights can be quite expensive, but passengers need not worry. Pilots for Christ flies missions of mercy at no cost, transporting medical patients and supplies, missionaries, and ministers, who must travel on a time-critical basis. Much like the Pony Express of long ago, it operates within a 350-mile radius of its home base in Monroeville, frequently connecting with other Pilots for Christ International chapters for longer trips. In 2002, they flew 60 missions, but they also had to turn some people down, and that's not good enough for Lee and Chapman.

Eagles' Wings Air Ambulance came about when the two men realized Pilots for Christ was having to turn down patients who needed medical services onboard. "We got a call to fly Superman," Lee said, his tone still marveling at the request. He was referring to movie actor Christopher Reeve, who played Superman until a fall from a horse left him paralyzed. "We had to turn them down because we were not equipped for a wheelchair-bound patient with extensive medical needs," Lee continued, "and we got to thinking about the others we had turned down because of medical limits. We asked God to help, and He gave us the faith to expand."

Eagles' Wings Air Ambulance, a sister organization to Pilots for Christ, was established in May 2002 and had flown 25 missions as of April 2003. It is staffed by professional pilots, physicians, nurses, paramedics and flight coordinators and operates primarily to or from any location east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Bahamas. Eagles' Wings is a non-profit service and runs on a cost-effective basis, accepting payment from those who can pay, and transporting those who cannot when funds are available. An $875,000 loan was obtained to purchase its Piper Cheyenne aircraft, and payments are made from any flight income and donations.

Staff for flights are selected based on patient needs for each flight: Teams of physician-nurse, nurse-paramedic, and nurse-respiratory therapist are available on an as-needed basis. Each crew member must have a minimum of two years' experience in a critical care environment, with current certification in ACLS, PALS, and flight physiology. All flight crew members must undergo advanced training in an array of routine procedures and emergency applications. All pilots and co-pilots are FAA multi-engine certified and undergo flight proficiency checks every six months.

Pilots for Christ flight coordinator Phillip Allen is on call 24/7 to coordinate missions with a "one call does it all" operation. Allen, known as the "unsung hero" of the group, makes all the arrangements, including working with Eagles' Wings Director of Medical Operations Toby Parrish for the missions. The patient must have his doctor's permission to fly and other requirements are screened through an application process, managed by Allen. "Sometimes we fly on a half-hour notice," he said. "It can be that quick."

Applicants need not be a member of a church to be considered, Chapman added. "We serve the general population regardless of race, religion, lack of religion or ethnic identity. We respect the right of all to worship God in accordance with their conscience."

Chapman went on to say, "Sometimes we get paid; sometimes we don't. When we have enough money in the coffers to take a financially needy case, we do not hesitate. As long as we've got the money, we can go. Those who cannot pay, sometimes make a donation, or their friends and families do."

They took their name from Exodus 19:4, which says, "You yourself have seen how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." Says Chapman, "We're just trying to live up to that."

For information about scheduling Eagles' Wings Air Ambulance call 1-800-335-1603. Pilots for Christ may be reached at (251) 575-3200, or email flytlee@frontiernet.net. Donations to either organization may be mailed to P.O. Box 965, Monroeville, AL 36461.

Freelance writer Fran Sharp lives in Alabaster.


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