By Craig Moorhead
Bluff Country Newspaper Group
Eric Benson stood in his hangar right next to his twin-engine Ted Smith Aerostar. The airplane is a 1973 model with over 10,000 hours of service. It’s prop-driven, but still looks fast just sitting on the ground.
“Wings of Mercy was began by a businessman in Michigan in 1991,” he said. “Later, a Minnesota chapter was formed.”
That Minnesota Chapter of Wings of Mercy (WOM) has provided free transportation for medical patients in financial need since 1995, free of charge. Pilots such as Benson use their own planes and volunteer their time to the program, which only reimburses them for fuel.
For those seeking medical care in rural communities, the ability to access hospitals in larger cities can make a big difference.
“We go out to remote areas,” Benson said. “Most of the time I’m bringing them into Mayo or to Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.”
“Oftentimes a social worker will bring someone with a proven financial need to our program, which is headquartered in St. Cloud… They’re the people who have kind of fallen through the cracks. They need to get some medical care, and a lot of the time a social worker has found physicians that will volunteer their time for these people… You just have to get them there.”
All WOM flights are for patients. More than 50 percent are children. Most are receiving follow-up cancer treatments, various surgeries, addressing breathing problems or other issues. The flights are not used to haul plasma, tissues or doctors, Benson reported. Most are arranged about two weeks in advance. They’re not emergency ambulance trips.
According to the Minnesota WOM website, “All of our beneficiaries have medical insurance. Our beneficiaries are not able to be transported via van, bus or train because their bodies simply cannot make it onto the van, bus or train due to pain, body casts, paralysis etc. Further, they or their caregiver have already missed so much work due to the illness that any more time off for the longer trips would put them on the unemployment line, thus losing medical insurance and their standard of living.”
Benson has volunteered for some 55 Wings of Mercy flights over the years. “Burn time,” or wear and tear on an aircraft, is his to absorb, as are days away from work. Fuel only consists of about a third of the total cost. “This particular plane costs about $4 a minute to operate,” he said with a grin.
Benson Technical Works is based at the Houston County Airport near Caledonia. In their day jobs, Eric and his wife, Leanne, work constantly with big planes, installing and maintaining aeronautical navigation equipment at numerous facilities over a seven-state area.
“There’s a minimum criterion that we have to meet (to fly for WOM),” Benson said. “You have to be instrument-rated. You have to have so many hours of flying time. We also always take two pilots for safety. Oftentimes, there is also a nurse volunteer who goes along.” For all of those reasons, large-cabin singles and twins are the most sought after airplanes.
“I end up getting some of the more difficult trips because I fly a lot and the airplane is all-weather capable,” Eric said. “There was one particularly nasty day when we brought an older gentleman who was getting a knee replacement home to northern Minnesota so that he could be treated for an infection prior to finishing his surgeries. A woman in an old frayed dress met us at the airport. She had an old rickety car packed with sofa cushions in the back because she couldn’t afford to pay for an ambulance.”
“She turned to me with tears in her eyes, ‘I don’t have any money to pay you,’ she said. ‘We take hugs,’ I told her. She cried as she hugged me… How can you put a dollar value on that? I get back 20 times more than I ever put into it.”
Transporting patients back to their homes when all medical options have been exhausted was a challenge Benson said he had dreaded, until it happened.
“They just wanted to die at home,” he said. “I thought it would be really stressful, tense. How do you act around somebody like that? As it turns out, they’ve been nothing but grateful and at peace. One woman who knew she was going to die was just so thankful. There wasn’t any ‘why me?’ it was ‘thank you so much.’”
“I just came away thinking that there are angels walking around us all the time,” Benson added.
The Minnesota Chapter of Wings of Mercy has joined with a number of humanitarian flying organizations that provide similar services across the country called The Air Care Alliance, Benson said. Other than the Michigan chapters of WOM, Angel Flight, Inc., is a good example of a cooperating member. Minnesota WOM basically operates within a 500-mile radius of its headquarters, although some flights reach farther afield.
“You file a flight plan as a ‘compassion flight,’” Eric said. “That way you can get preferential handling from the air traffic controller. For people with IVs or colostomy bags, you would get to make your descent into an airport more gradually. That’s important for the patient.”
He also explained that donations to WOM come from all over the country and 100 percent goes right to the person who needs it.
“I look at it like this,” Eric concluded. “I have two feet that work, two hands that work, my brain works, and with these skills that I’ve got, I feel I have a very blessed life. It’s an opportunity for me to give back. This is my own personal ministry, giving back to people who are less fortunate than me. I find it incredibly satisfying.”
This story was reprinted with permission from the Bluff Country Newspaper Group.