Five on the Fly: Walt Fricke

Five on the Fly: Walt Fricke

The Veterans Airlift Command provides free private air transportation to post 9/11 combat wounded and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.

WHO: Walt Fricke

POSITION:
Veterans Airlift Command
Airboss/Chairman/Founder

HOMEBASE:
Minneapolis, MN

RATINGS:

Commerical ASMEL,
Instrument (airplane & helicopter),
Glider

HOURS:
5,000

1. What inspired you to form the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC)? 

In early 2006, the military hospitals were filling up with wounded combat. I myself have a strong recollection of being hospitalized far away from home after being wounded as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. It’s an awful feeling to be separated from your family and support system. I had a twin-engine airplane at the time, and thought, “I can help solve that problem for somebody.” So, I took early retirement and began thinking about how to accomplish this…the idea has since grown exponentially.

2. The VAC has now flown more than 15,000 passengers. Why is this transportation so beneficial to these veterans and their families?

Many of our veterans have served multiple combat tours and suffered from amputations, burn, shrapnel wounds and traumatic brain injuries (along with PTSD). It is very difficult for these warriors to fly commercially due to the crowded terminals, security limitations (which may mean removing prosthetics), travel delays, etc. Private transportation is sometimes the only viable option. In addition to the convenience provided, being flown and cared for by a like-minded patriot sends a strong message of appreciation which is often a good medicine. And it also touches the volunteer pilot who is essentially signing a “thank you note” by supplying their airplane and time.

The VAC staff (from left to right): Jen Salvati, Executive Director; Walt Fricke, Founder; Maria Miles, Senior Mission Coordinator; Jenna Diebel, Mission Coordinator.

3. What is a typical VAC mission?

Missions range from 250 miles to transcontinental, with the passenger load consisting of the veteran up to a family of 5 or 6. We publish the requests via email (including the personal backstory) to our volunteer network along with the proposed route. There is no pressure for pilots to respond unless interested. Volunteers can opt to fly the roundtrip, or just an individual leg…even a partial leg if the trip exceeds the desired range. Nearly 90 percent of our trips are accomplished with jets or turboprops, but we do some–
times utilize high-performance singles for shorter legs. IFR flight plans are required.  

4. How many pilots and aircraft are currently affiliated with the organization? What is the process for registering?

We have over 2,600 aircraft owners and pilots registered. Our goal is to grow that number to 5,000. We believe we would then be able to achieve close to 100 percent of requests by way of general aviation support. Currently, once we vet and approve the travel, we commit to getting them to the destination even if unable to find a volunteer (thus the purchase of airline tickets). To register, pilots can simply visit our website www.veteransairlift.org and click on the tab “register your aircraft.” The process only take a few minutes and they will start receiving mission notices when appropriate. As I mentioned, there is no obligation to respond – each notice is just an opportunity.

5. Can you describe one of your most memorable moments with a VAC passenger?

Close to my heart is the story of a young Marine, double amputee (arm at the shoulder and lower opposite leg), who expressed a desire to learn to fly after his first VAC trip aboard a private aircraft. His goal was to fly missions for the VAC. I honestly didn’t know how a person in his condition could manage to fly an airplane with one hand, but he has since (through a scholarship with ABLE Flight) earned a sport pilot’s certificate, private pilot certificate and an instrument rating. He is now working on his multi-engine and already paying it forward by flying VAC missions from the right seat of a PC-12 along with VAC volunteer, Mike Bell. That Marine is Sgt. (ret.) Adam Kisielewski. Proud to know him!

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