By Judy Neiberg
Wings up at exactly 8:30 a.m. from Mason Jewett Airport (TEW) in mid-Michigan, reaching 6,500 feet cruising altitude quickly. The Cessna 182 was lean and loving the cool weather.
Chuck Binder, Wings of Mercy director of operations, flew right seat. Bill Beecroft was command pilot. The trip to Sporty’s Aviation headquarters in Batavia, Ohio, was champagne-sipping smooth, fall ground colors were magnificent, and visibility was estimated greater than 60 miles.
On arrival, we were greeted by Michael Wolf, CEO of Sporty’s; his association with Sporty’s goes back to his teenage years. He gave us a tour of headquarters. It is best described as part a pilot’s Disneyland, part Amazon Prime, part aviation museum, and part Google headquarters. The majority of employees have worked there for decades, employee appreciation perks were seen everywhere, and Sporty’s connection with the local community was evident.
An hour and a half later we took off for home with 50 flight bags, bearing the embroidered emblem of Wings of Mercy. WOM, in East Michigan, is just one of many compassionate volunteer flight organizations that transport patient passengers to medical centers. Their patients have limited financial resources precluding commercial air travel. Pilots usually fly their own airplane and are always accompanied by a second pilot. Each compassion flight group has differing pilot requirements. WOM requires instrument ratings, as all flights are filed IFR. Most WOM pilots have qualifications exceeding FAA certification requirements.
Wings of Mercy has flown more than 1.3 million miles for its passengers—think of 55 times around the world. Generally, flights are within 600 miles, with the majority being to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
So why did we have an airplane stuffed full of flight bags?
Alan Neiberg, my husband, was a Wings of Mercy pilot. He flew many trips to Mayo Clinic in his Cessna 182, along with doing compassion flights for Angel Flight, and Michigan’s Operation Good Cheer each December. Alan learned to fly in his forties. He became instrument-rated less than two years after obtaining his private pilot certificate. Alan was a renowned internal medicine physician in the mid-Michigan area. His practice kept him tied to his stethoscope 60-plus hours a week, yet he found time to lend his aviation skills to transport patient passengers. Usually his co-pilot was Beecroft; the two had known each other since medical residency.
Alan passed away in March 2022. Generous donations were made to Wings of Mercy in his honor. From those, and with Sporty’s generosity, these flight bags were made possible. Each bag will be partially filled with comfort items for travel and sent to patient passengers before their flight. Dr. Alan Neiberg was a brilliant, caring, and compassionate physician who had a love of flying. These flight bags represent both of his passions.
As we were leaving, Wolf took Alan’s logbook and penned the final entry: “10/28/22, N702SP, from KTEW to Sporty’s. ‘To a great man, and the legacy he leaves…thank you.’”
Judy Neiberg is the wife of the late Dr. Alan Neiberg.