Giving hope wings

Dave McElroy and Russ Airey were part of a six-plane crew that flew more than 9,500 kilometres across the Canadian Arctic and Alaskan wilderness last year, and that experience left Airey wanting more.

Pilot Russ Airey stands with his Van's RV-9A. Stephen Caissie Photo
Pilot Russ Airey stands with his Van’s RV-9A. Stephen Caissie Photo
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Soon after the journey ended, Airey recalls sending McElroy an email with a simple question at its core: “What are we doing next?”

“He ignored me for a little while and he comes back and he said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about going around South America,'” said Airey, a long-time general aviation pilot and retired Chrysler manager who lives in Windsor, Ont.

McElroy, a seasoned aviator from Kelowna, B.C., with more than 3,300 hours in 29 different aircraft types, wanted to circumnavigate Central and South America while raising money for charity. The more they talked about it, the more feasible the idea seemed.

“It became more of a reality, and more something that we could do,” said Airey. “I jumped on board.”

Those are the roots of Give Hope Wings, an ambitious fundraiser set to kick off in January 2018. It will see McElroy, Airey and co-pilot Harold Fast of Spiritwood, Sask., fly more than 32,000 kilometres while trying to raise more than $400,000 for Hope Air, a charity that arranges free flights to healthcare appointments for low-income Canadians.

Pilot Russ Airey, left, stands with his co-pilot Harold Fast and fellow pilot Dave McElroy at an airfield in Ontario. The three plan to circumnavigate Central and South America next year to raise money for Hope Air. Stephen Caissie Photo
Pilot Russ Airey, left, stands with his co-pilot Harold Fast and fellow pilot Dave McElroy at an airfield in Ontario. The three plan to circumnavigate Central and South America next year to raise money for Hope Air. Stephen Caissie Photo

“It just ticks all the boxes,” said McElroy when asked why Hope Air appealed to him as a charity.

“A) It’s all about aviation, as is this flying expedition; B) It’s giving back. It’s helping less advantaged Canadians get to healthcare, and who amongst us doesn’t know or have a relative that gets into desperate trouble and needs help?

“The third thing: the more I looked at it, this is the most efficient, effective charity that I’ve ever been involved with.”

Dave McElroy stands with his Van's RV-6. Stephen Caissie Photo
Dave McElroy stands with his Van’s RV-6. Stephen Caissie Photo

Hope Air arranged nearly 11,500 free flights last year for patients that would otherwise have to drive or ride a bus for several hours to access the care they need. Some travel from as far away as the Maritimes to access cancer care in Toronto, and some live in remote areas whose roads are difficult to navigate in winter.

“It’s a lot of different elements: Comfort, ability to actually travel,” said Doug Keller-Hobson, executive director of Hope Air. “The impact we make by giving them a free flight is just part of making sure they have equal access to health care.

“I think as Canadians we’re all entitled to that. We have a good healthcare system, but you need to be able to access it, and in those instances where it’s distance and cost, we’re kind of leaving those people behind.”

Only 12 cents of every dollar that comes to Hope Air goes to fundraising, administration and overhead, said Keller-Hobson. The remaining 88 cents goes toward paying for flights.

Hope Air buys flights from several Canadian airlines and also relies on volunteer general aviation pilots to connect patients to the care they need. Airlines also donate free flights, with WestJet and Porter Airlines as key partners.

Give Hope Wings would be the largest fundraiser based on a single event in Hope Air’s history, if it successfully raises $400,000. It’s expected the charity could use the money to arrange more than 1,500 flights.

“To think that we can add 1,500 more flights to what we’re already doing, that really makes an impact–a lot of families that get help suddenly,” said Keller-Hobson.

Give Hope Wings is set to touch down in 20 countries over a two-month period. The journey has planned stops in Panama City, Panama; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

McElroy will fly a Van’s RV-6 powered by a 180-horsepower Lycoming engine. He bought the aircraft in 2015, according to the fundraiser’s website. Airey will fly a Van’s RV-9A he built himself, with Fast as his co-pilot.

“I’ve been wanting to fly around South America for some time, and I guess specifically I’d like to fly to Paraguay,” said Fast, retired co-founder of the pig genetics company Fast Genetics.

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“But I didn’t want to do it as a single pilot. And so it just seemed a great opportunity to get in with guys who are enthusiastic about it as well.”

This will be the most ambitious trip in both Airey’s flying career and in Fast’s, but McElroy tackled a longer journey in 2014, when he circumnavigated the globe to raise money for Toronto’s SickKids Hospital and another charity in Scotland, where he lived at the time.

Retired Canadian astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar, second from left, is the honourary patron for Give Hope Air. Stephen Caissie Photo
Retired Canadian astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar, second from left, is the honorary patron for Give Hope Air. Stephen Caissie Photo

While Give Hope Wings seems massive in its entirety, all three pilots noted it’s broken down into small chunks that are no larger than they’re accustomed to flying.

“It’s a daunting challenge, but when you break it up into logical bites it’s a very doable challenge,” said McElroy. “It’s something that we’ve all been doing all our adult lives, and we just love it.”

Airey compared other people’s perceptions of the journey to swallowing an elephant in one bite.

“It’s not how aviation works,” he said. “It’s one flight leg, it’s one departure, it’s one arrival, it’s one flight plan at a time.”

For more information about Give Hope Wings or to make a donation, visit www.givehopewings.ca.

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