The jungle called me back. I flew for Wings of Hope in Belize in the late 1980s. Now Wings of Hope had invited me to visit its three volunteer pilots currently flying in Central America: Wayne Erickson, Terry Lewis, and Daniel Creech. I looked forward to going back.
Wings of Hope is a humanitarian charity headquartered in St. Louis. Most of its work involves the procurement, outfitting, and maintenance of bush airplanes for other humanitarian organizations throughout the world. Wings of Hope also operates a few aircraft of its own in Belize and Guatemala.
The pair of Guatemalan operations is less than two years old. The lingering civil war there had forced Wings of Hope to leave Guatemala 15 years ago. A peace accord was signed just after Christmas 1996, and for the past year the Guatemalans have been rebuilding and trying to learn tolerance on both sides. Wings of Hope went back to help.
Wayne Erickson has served seven stints in Central America for Wings of Hope. He established the Belize operation in which I participated 10 years ago, and now he is in the remote town of El Estor, Guatemala, and flies a Piper Cherokee Six to support the community.
El Estor sits at the edge of Lake Izabal, a warm, algae-choked lake that is about 35 miles long and 10 to 12 miles wide. Mountains surround the lake, ranging upwards to 9,000 feet. The temperature averages 85 degrees, and during my stay the temperatures burst through the 100-degree mark each day before noon. The windThe windless lake exudes a thick, milky haze, and the resulting humidity is inescapable. There is no air conditioning, the mosquitoes carry malaria, and there are crocodiles in the town's central fountain. Indigenos — the Guatemalan word for Mayan Indians — saunter from small pieces of shade to other small pieces of shade. The market is the only reason for the town's existence, ever since the nearby nickel mine shut down six years ago.
Erickson flies the Wings of Hope aircraft in support of the San Pedro Catholic Parish, and the parish provides an apartment and meals within its walls. The Rev. Daniel Vogt is the parish priest; he has spent 10 years in El Estor. He approached Wings of Hope in August 1996 to ask if it would provide an air ambulance service similar to the one in Belize. Wings of Hope agreed, and the Cherokee Six came down in May 1997.
The parish dispatches the aircraft to support its staff at the church, the school, and the clinic and sponsors the operating costs for these flights as well. Vogt also organized a committee of community leaders and doctors — wholly separate from the church — and this committee also sponsors the aircraft. About half of Erickson's flights are dispatched on emergency medevacs by the committee's doctors. In the last year the committee has held two Fiesta Days at the airport and a rodeo to raise funds for these flights and for a new hangar at the airstrip. Erickson told me that this community support makes the El Estor operation one of the best he has seen.
The community also has high praise for Erickson. "A person of his age and wealth of experience, and who is a person that comes here, just calls for respect. Not that he demands respect, but his presence is such that people automatically will respect him," Vogt said.
Erickson is a humble person, however. It took a lot of prodding to get him to talk about himself. "I'm not particularly fond of biographies," he said. "People who do this kind of work, at least people I know who are genuinely into it, like to be low profile and not focused on. The work is so rewarding that I feel lucky to be able to do it. I don't think I'm doing anybody any favors; far from it. I'm the lucky one."
Erickson started flying near the end of World War II. He enlisted in the Navy and was at preflight school in Iowa when the war ended. "Then when we were discharged, I continued flying as a private citizen, just as recreation," he said.
Erickson has always been a hardworking and humble volunteer. He began volunteering in Israel in 1971. He operated a hospital there for Palestinians, as a program director for Lutheran World Federation. He had brought his wife and four children to Israel, and although his assignment was two years, they stayed for 10. Then he retired and began flying again, something that had not been possible in the Middle East.
An ad for Wings of Hope in Trade-A-Plane caught Erickson's eye in 1983. When he called to ask if they needed volunteers, they coincidentally had a pending request from a missionary in Belize and a donated Maule Rocket from a pilot in Lander, Wyoming. All they needed was a pilot.
Erickson and another pilot flew the Maule to Central America, only to find that the missionary was not as sincere as he had seemed, and so Erickson pulled the aircraft out of the mission's private airstrip after two days. By coincidence, a Wings of Hope supporter knew a lumberyard owner in Belize, who in turn knew the niece of Belize's first prime minister, George Price. That chain of chance introductions quickly led to a 20-minute meeting with the prime minister.
Belize had just celebrated its second year of independence from Britain, and the fledgling government was working to build a solid infrastructure. One of Prime Minister Price's concerns was the remoteness of those who lived in the south end of the country. "Part of the government's policy was equal medical care for all, but the people in the south and parts of the undeveloped areas were not getting equal medical care because they had no transportation. Transportation was so bad from Punta Gorda to Belize City that many people just died," Erickson recalled. The rutted road from Punta Gorda takes seven hours to drive — or 45 minutes by a Cessna 206.
Erickson began flying for the Belize Ministry of Health within hours of that meeting.
Years later, a Cessna 206 replaced the Maule, which served better to carry a stretcher out of tight, short strips. Erickson would return to Central America six times to fly for the Belize operation and for International Health Service in Honduras, which Wings of Hope supports each year — and now, El Estor.
Terry Lewis is the current pilot in Belize. He and his wife, Kat, moved to San Pedro two months before my visit.
"It is our dream come true," Kat said. "Ever since we've been in a committed relationship, we've talked about what we want to do with our lives, and that was to be volunteers in some way, to be able to help people. We looked into what we could do that would allow us to travel and help people. When we found Wings of Hope, we literally felt like our dreams had come true."
Kat and Terry met through a newspaper personal ad. Kat wanted to learn how to fly. "I answered his ad because it said his interests ranged from airplanes to Carl Jung, and that he meditated. I was interested that he had a spiritual side, but mostly the airplanes drew me to him," she said. Their first date was a flight to San Luis Obispo, California, for lunch, and two weeks later they made a commitment to each other. They were married in 1995.
Terry is a lean man with a sparkle-eyed curiosity. He is a mechanical designer and has been working out of his home since 1963. He is struck with wanderlust. "I'm the kind of person that likes lots of changes. I've had more than 50 jobs and lived in 35 different places. I move a lot; I love to do that. Every time I move, I go to the airport and get checked out in a different airplane. I just fly whatever I can rent."
Terry decided to pursue an airline career in 1967, but eventually gave up the chase. "I took a big chunk of change and started buying flying lessons. Then I taught as an instructor, building hours. I eventually was fired in 1971 from a flight training job by a chief pilot who thought my hair was too long. That really shook me to my boots. I decided if that kind of environment existed out there, I probably didn't fit into it very well," Terry said. All of his flying was recreational after that.
Terry first spoke with Wings of Hope representatives at the 1996 AOPA Expo in San Jose, California. Kat said, "He told me he had had something happen that was going to change our lives."
The couple drove to St. Louis to interview with Wings of Hope. They wanted to see if the organization was all that it claimed to be. Kat said, "We were ecstatic when we met the people at Wings of Hope. We really felt that we were meeting people with big hearts that were giving of themselves. We talked seriously between ourselves and decided this is really the organization for us."
The husband-and-wife team works well. Kat handles the paperwork and flies with Terry whenever there is an empty seat. The Belize operation is based at San Pedro, on an island about 30 miles from Belize City. This small town has discovered tourism, with the world's third largest barrier reef a quarter-mile from the beach. A gentle breeze often blows down the runway, and Cessna Caravans and Britten-Norman Islanders scream by the house every 20 minutes or so as the local airlines compete for tourist dollars. To Terry and Kat the noise is a delicious aspect of their new home.
And it is their new home. They have given up everything of the past to build a life in Central America. "This is something I feel needs to be done, and I can do it. It relates directly to human suffering, and if I can help relieve that, I feel good," Terry said. The Lewises are ready to dedicate the rest of their lives to that goal.
Another husband-and-wife team flies in the Ixcan (ish-kahn) of Guatemala. Daniel and Andrea Creech were volunteering in Belize when Mike Sullivan, a pilot in the Ixcan, asked Wings of Hope to take over. Sullivan had brought his wife and five children to the small Indian village of Mayalan for a year, to help refugees returning from Mexico to rebuild their lives. The Ixcan is an area so remote that there are no roads, no telephones, no electricity, and no plumbing. Wings of Hope sent Daniel and Andrea with a Cessna 206, which had been donated by Rotary clubs in Wyoming.
Daniel met Andrea in Merida, Mexico, where the Belize Ministry of Health often sends patients for cancer treatment and extensive surgery. Andrea worked at the FBO there, and when they were married, she brought her youngest daughter, Andrea "Junior," to San Pedro. She and Daniel had been married for a year when they headed for Guatemala, where Andrea's native Spanish was indispensable. The Creeches moved the operation to the large town of Huehuetenango (way-way-ten-ahn-go) so that Junior could attend junior high school.
Each morning Daniel loads the aircraft with people returning to the Ixcan with purchased goods and construction cargo, then he flies across the rugged Sierra de los Cuchumantanes at 12,500 feet msl. On the other side is a lush expanse of trees and rivers that stretches seemingly forever. It is unspoiled by roads, and the occasional airstrip and village appear mysteriously from out of the foliage only as the aircraft approaches. This is the Ixcan.
Creech spends each day shuttling between the villages and taking loads back to Huehuetenango so that passengers can sell their crops, buy their goods, or see a doctor. He makes these rounds three to four times a day.
It will be another year before the coffee fields will yield a crop, and even then there will be little money for the locals to spend on charter operators, who so far do not fly into the Ixcan. Other than by aircraft, the only way out is by foot trail, and that takes more than a week.
Creech loves the flying. "I feel that I could do this kind of work for the rest of my life. I was born to do humanitarian work," he said.
Creech discovered aviation at age 29 when he surreptitiously taught himself to fly. He discovered his father's ultralight on floats, read the instruction book, and then took off for a flight. "I don't want to encourage that kind of behavior," Creech explains. "I used to be a kind of wild man. I raced cars and motorcycles — broke all the rules. But flying taught me that rules are a very good thing to have, that the rules keep you alive."
Creech went on to get his private certificate and bought a Cessna 120 so that he could fly cheaper than renting. He heard that instrument and commercial ratings improved one's pilot skills, and so he acquired them. He later studied for an A&P rating to save money on maintenance. Then one day he walked into a skydiving operation at a small airstrip and became the chief pilot and mechanic. The jump operation upgraded to a Pilatus Porter and then a de Havilland Twin Otter, and Creech built turbine time. Mark Air hired him to fly in Bethel, Alaska, for a few months, then he returned to the jump operation.
Daniel said, "I really got tired of the skydiving business and kept on saying to people, 'I want to fly airplanes and help people.' That was what I would say, but I was interviewing with freight companies and charter operators. A friend of mine then brought me to my senses. I had talked about Wings of Hope for the last 10 or 12 years. It sounded like an organization that fit me. They were a group that helps people make the world a better place — and use airplanes doing it. My buddy said, 'You've been talking about Wings of Hope for a long time. Why don't you call them up?' So I did."
Four years later, he is still doing what he had always dreamed about — flying and helping people.
Wings of Hope is fortunate to have these volunteers. They all agree on what it takes to succeed as a humanitarian pilot. One has to be patient and tolerant of the different cultures, but most of all, there must be a desire to serve.
Erickson expressed it clearly: "If a person comes here only to build time for his logbook, he probably wouldn't understand the idea of serving his fellow man. You have to find a unique person who loves to fly and at the same time is willing to serve. That means making his own needs and wants secondary."
For more information, write to Wings of Hope, Spirit of St. Louis Airport, 18590 Edison Avenue, Chesterfield, Missouri 63005; telephone 314/537-1302 or 800/448-9487; fax 314/537-3139; e-mail ( [email protected]); or on the Web ( www.wings-of-hope.org).