National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

They Fly the Mercy-Mission Skies

BY Tom Tracy

October 26-November 1, 2003 Issue | Posted 10/26/03 at 1:00 PM


Prolife Profile

In a small aircraft hanger at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Mo., Doug Clements is meeting with the Wings of Hope volunteers: a group of about 50 men and a few women mostly in their 60s and 70s.

Surrounded by eight small aircraft in various stages of refurbishment and renovation — they're designated for service in remote missions around the world — Clemens calls on his volunteers to give status reports on each aircraft. He calls on each team leader by his respective aviation handle: “79 Charlie” or “47 Papa.”

The Cessna U206, it is reported, will be going to Panama in November after its tail is reassembled, bulkhead modifications finished and a circuit breaker panel replaced. Cessna 182 is off to service in the Ecuadorian Amazon after some pulleys and cables are replaced and a new muffler and ailerons installed.

One or two of the planes that are ill-suited for missionary service — including two tiny stunt planes someone donated — will be auctioned off over the Internet in order to raise money for Wings of Hope, now one of the biggest international humanitarian organizations based in St. Louis.

Clements, a former U.S. Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War and a World Health Organization volunteer pilot who flew humanitarian missions in Laos and Cambodia, talks to his troops about the latest difficulties he is having with Mexican authorities over the sale of a donated aircraft there. Behind Clements is a map on the wall showing where each of 143 Wings of Hope planes currently in service.

This is largely the same scene that has been going on since 1962, when four St. Louis University graduates and local Catholics founded Wings of Hope in response to a challenge from a bishop in Africa who needed a new “bush plane” for one of his nuns who needed the plane to get around. Animals had eaten the fabric-covered wings of the sister's plane and the bishop was looking for a plane constructed of metal.

“They were each very modest men and brought a sense of business to this; each were very dedicated to helping the poor,” says Mary Jean Russell, whose uncle, the late Paul Rodgers, was one of the four founders of Wings of Hope. Russell serves as the nonprofit organization's development director and is a part-time faculty member in the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“There are no utopias,” she adds, “but there is a fundamental commitment to helping the poor here.”

Victorious Volunteerism

Most of the Wings volunteers are retired military personnel or former pilots, machinists and engineers from TWA and the old Ozark Airlines, along with the St. Louis-based McDonnell-Douglas aircraft manufacturer now owned by Boeing. The aircraft repair work underway here is considered relatively easy but delicate work, and every day at noon the volunteers have access to training sessions. Three Wings of Hope mechanics are listed as full-time employees in order to satisfy FAA regulations aimed at ensuring aircraft safety and continuity during repairs.

Volunteer pilot Dan Curtis, 62, who flew both planes and helicopters during several tours of Vietnam, found his way to Wings of Hope after his wife died of cancer. He had rented airplanes at Spirit of St. Louis Airport after retirement when he spotted the Wings of Hope logo and decided to stop by.

Wings director Clements suggested to Curtis that he go to Guyana, South America, last year, to train as a “bush pilot” under the existing Wings pilot team working in remote parts of that under-developed nation. He ultimately went to Guyana four times for a total of eight months of volunteer duty. Curtis and a nurse shuttled doctors and dentists around, dispensed donated eyeglasses to local children, and brought snake-bit victims and mothers with pregnancy complications to the nearest hospitals.

“The good thing was taking the mothers back holding their babies; you get a chance to return them,” Curtis says. As for adjusting to the South American climate just a few degrees off the equator: “Before I went down I did a lot of walking in the hot part of the day.”

Bob Mertens, 74, a Wings of Hope volunteer for the past 11 years (he's also occasionally called out of retirement to work as a test equipment design engineer at Boeing), says preparing the aircraft for missionary work is great for retired aircraft-industry workers. It keeps their minds sharp.

“When I walked in here the first time I heard the voice of the guy who came up with the system for adding auxiliary fuel tanks to the Cessna 206s so we can ferry them across the Pacific and Atlantic,” Mertens says. “The last two planes we ferried to Africa were delivered by a 75-year-old pilot who had been around the world a couple of times and 73-year-old co-pilot. That level of experience combined with that age is not unusual at all here.”

Wordless Evangelization

In the works now and in need of additional funding is a proposal to put a Wings of Hope volunteer pilot from Oregon and a donated plane at the service of a Catholic bishop, Macram Max Gassis, living in exile in central Sudan, a civil war-torn African nation. Archbishop of Philadelphia, Justin Rigali, who is a member of Wing's Honorary Council, has added his support to the Sudan endeavor. The plane will support both medical and educational projects there.

“Thousands of males have had one or two hands cut off in South Sudan,” Clements says of the Sudanese population. “That alone would keep the plane busy forever. Then you have the malaria, dengue fever — it's a very sick area.”

Wings of Hope missions include carrying the sick or injured to healthcare facilities; bringing healthcare volunteers to those in need; transporting and distributing medical supplies and pharmaceuti-cals to villages, hospitals and clinics; facilitating inoculation programs for children; bringing teachers to students; conducting livestock health improvement programs; and transporting skilled personnel and materials for hospitals, clinic, community and educational projects.

To date, the organization has had only one crash with fatalities; that happened in Guatemala three years ago.

“We don't focus on giveaway programs but self-sufficiency for health care and education,” says Clements, a member of St. Peter and Paul Parish in St. Louis. “It's all about helping mankind. The volunteers, staff, planes all come together to give the poor life and is an opportunity to do what we feel is our God-given duty: to help our fellow man.”

And, speaking of God: What's Wings of Hope got to do with the Gospel?

“We all feel that we are conducting God's work by doing what we do here, and Gospel spreading is certainly part of it,” answers Clements. “We try to focus on the more humanitarian needs of the poor, but do missionary work as time permits — sort of letting our actions speak for us. After the poor get to know how we think, they always ask our beliefs. That is when we begin talking about the Gospel.”

Tom Tracy writes from West Palm Beach, Florida.