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About an hour before they were scheduled to land a homebuilt Vans RV-6 kit plane in Oregon last month, pilot Dave McElroy and first officer Terry Grover sat in the cockpit and weighed the implications of a complete electrical failure.
All radios in the aircraft failed, including the intercom system, along with the other electronic instruments that had guided McElroy and two other Canadian pilots on Give Hope Wings, an epic circumnavigation of Central and South America that raised more than $517,000 for charity.
They landed safely in the coastal city of North Bend, de-cowled the aircraft, and confirmed the cause: A failed alternator. It took a couple of days to have it overhauled, delaying their return to McElroy’s home airport in Kelowna, B.C.
But that was the only major glitch in a 66-day adventure that saw McElroy, along with pilots Russ Airey of Windsor, Ont., and Harold Fast of Spiritwood, Sask., fly about 39,000 kilometres to raise money for Hope Air, a charity that provides free flights to health care for patients in need.
“Apart from that, zero issues,” said McElroy, a seasoned pilot with more than 3,600 hours in 29 different aircraft.
“We did two oil changes en route, and when I got home to Kelowna I did a complete annual and 100-hour inspection, and the aircraft was in great shape.
“Even after all that, it was in great shape.”
Airey, who made the journey in his Vans RV9A with Fast as his co-pilot, was in charge of maintenance for Give Hope Wings, and he doesn’t hesitate to brag about the reliability of both aircraft.
“The only thing I took out of my toolkit was a screwdriver that someone had to tighten up a couple of screws on their wheel pants or something like that,” he said.
“Other than that, didn’t take a tool or a spare part out of any of my equipment.”
Give Hope Wings far exceeded expectations as a fundraiser, easily hurdling its initial goal of raising $400,000 before the flying even started.
Money is still coming in, but the journey will fund at least 2,000 flights to medical appointments through Hope Air, a national charity that uses airlines and general aviation pilots to serve patients across the country.
“I think all three of us would share the sentiment that it was one of the best, if not the best, experiences of our lifetimes,” said McElroy, who also circumnavigated the globe in a Piper Comanche in 2014.
“It was absolutely fabulous.”
McElroy, Airey and Fast set out from Kelowna International Airport on Jan. 2, 2018, with the goal of raising both money and awareness for Hope Air, as well as raising awareness of general aviation and inspiring young people.
Nine additional co-pilots joined them for various legs of the journey, which had stops in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Ushuaia, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Panama City, among other places.
“We had a constantly-changing crew,” said McElroy. “We were flying through the most fabulous scenery in the world, and meeting new people every day in 20 different countries.
“We had experiences which were just fabulous for all of us.”
Highlights included flying with aerobatic demonstration teams in Chile and Brazil, as well as the relationships they formed with other pilots in the general aviation community.
“We’ve made a host of life-long friends, because the GA community just absolutely encircled us and adopted us,” said McElroy. “They helped us so much.”
Airey handled most of the scheduling and logistics for the journey, and noted the efforts of local pilots who gave up their personal hangars to host the Canadian pilots, arranged overnight accommodation, and drove them around.
“It was just amazing–people falling all over themselves and helping us, once they found out why we were doing this,” said Airey.
The flying itself wasn’t difficult. McElroy, Airey and Fast divided it into 88 manageable legs that ranged from five minutes to just under four hours.
But getting off the ground was sometimes a challenge, given the red tape and extra paperwork required in certain countries, including detailed flight plans in Spanish and Portuguese.
“They’re a lot more bureaucratic than what we’re used to in Canada or the States; however, once we were flying, then it loosened up a lot,” said Fast, another seasoned pilot and co-founder of the pig genetics company Fast Genetics.
“At the time, some of them were a little frustrating,” said Airey. “After a long day of flying you didn’t want to do two or three hours’ worth of paperwork. And it’d be hot, so we’d be frustrated.
“But now, it’s almost funny. It was just an experience–kind of just a unique experience to go through.”
None of the pilots have plans to embark on another trip as ambitious as this, but McElroy and Fast will be on the speaking circuit this summer, sharing stories from their journey and continuing to raise money for Give Hope Wings.
They’ll also be providing the Give Hope Wings brand to Hope Air, in case the organization wants to use it for future fundraisers.
As they speak about the journey in the months ahead, a key goal will be showing young people what’s possible when they dream big.
“All three of us subscribe to the belief that the biggest impediment on many, many, many young lives is not their circumstances; it’s their inability to imagine a bigger life for themselves,” said McElroy.
“A dream written down with a date becomes a goal; broken down into steps becomes a plan; backed by action, becomes reality.
“But it’s got to start with a dream.”
Donations to Hope Air are still being accepted at the Give Hope Wings website.