I wanted to focus this month’s column on how with small moves, we can connect and inspire through our love for General Aviation. I would like you to meet Tom Sullivan a soft spoken and self-effacing pilot, volunteer and business owner. Through history, an unexpected medical emergency, and dedication, Tom gave some Wisconsin kids the thrill of a lifetime.
I will begin with a little history. Tom received his private pilot license in 1994 then went on to his IFR rating in 1996. He purchased his first Mooney in 1996 an F-model that he flew for 1300 hours. In 2001, he moved into the Mooney Rocket. Tom now has about 3500 total hours. He is based at Ford Airport [Iron Mountain, KIMT] Michigan, which was built by Henry Ford. Tom is also the President of Northwoods Air Lifeline. Northwoods Air Lifeline is a non-profit organization of volunteer pilots from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northeast Wisconsin who donate their time and aircraft to help patients and their families with urgent medical needs for services not found locally. They have flown 2000 flights since 1999 and fly 100-150 trips per year [http://www.northwoodsairlifeline.org/]
If that weren’t enough, he is the local chapter President of EAA 439, Iron Mountain. They are currently planning their 16th annual Ford Airport Day, September 16th, 2017. This year will feature rides in the Ford Tri-Motor. The Friday before airport day, they join forces with a local a POW/MIA ceremony. They have music and all veterans come to have a free lunch, last year serving 500 veterans.
Way back in 1998, Tom bought Lancair kit. In 1999, he drove with a buddy from Michigan, to the Lancair factory located in Redmond Oregon for a fast-build training. On the drive back [non-stop 35 hours], he developed health problems. His arm started to swell up developed a blood clot in his shoulder. He was whisked away to Greenbay for tests and a procedure to open clot up. The procedure didn’t work so he received a blood transfusion and life-saving surgery. According to Tom, this brush with death lead him to “focus on family not things.” He put off the Lancair kit until February 1999 and worked on it about 200 hours per year. Once his kids went off to college in 2012 and he started working more on the airplane. At present, he has about 100 flight hours on the plane.
A few weeks ago, Tom needed some machining done on his Lancair’s AC system. He was given name of Mennonite man who could do the work in Medford Wisconsin, near Athens. As the two men got to know each other, the man developed a keen interest in the airplane. Apparently, he shared his interest with his children who were fascinated by airplane. The children had ever seen a small plane. Tom offered to give the kids a ride in his Mooney when he came to pick up the parts. When the parts were done, Tom flew the Mooney 35-minutes in to Athens, Wisconsin. As he taxied up, he saw quite a welcoming committee waiting for him. The kids and grown-ups were all on ramp with big happy smiles on their faces. Tom did a five-minute ground school/walk around the plane. He took oldest boy and two younger girls first on the 20-minute flight. He was surprised that older boy had researched flying online and was very interested in the aircraft systems. Tom even let him fly plane for a while.
In the second group, the oldest girl asked a lot of great questions about the plane “Why are we taxing down runway and going other way to take off? “ Before the flight, Dad asked because she was the oldest, “Do you want to ride in the front?” “No, no.” she said. But she suggested they fly over their little town. They flew over town and over their homes. A younger boy was upfront taking the controls. The girl in the back exclaimed, “Now I wish I would have gotten in the front seat to fly!” As dusk fell, Tom offered to take Mom and Dad for a ride, yet they declined, they were concerned about impending darkness and Tom’s night flight home. A couple of the children presented Tom with a paper plate of brownies covered in saran wrap with a note “for our pilot.”
Tom says that at the end of the time with the families, it “felt like such an emotional experience. We are all advocates of GA. It was humbling, and they were so appreciative.” A humbling and rewarding experience, what a lovely way to look at sharing our passion. “Sharing with people reminds us how fortunate we are” Tom reflects. His experience is a gentle reminder how special GA is, how lucky we are to be able to fly. As Tom and I talked we touched upon the fact that flying has a deeply spiritual component. As he flew home with the setting sun to his left wing, he felt connected to his passion, family and new friends.