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By B. Scott Mohr
If a person needs specialized medical care at a distant hospital but is too ill to take a commercial flight or ground transportation, Grace on Wings may be the lifesaving answer.
Founded by Hal Blank in 2006, Grace on Wings is the country’s only charity air ambulance, and it’s operated out of an office and a hangar at the old Indianapolis International Airport. Blank, the CEO and chief pilot, is an Army-trained orthopedics physician assistant and pilot who boasts more than 6,000 flight hours, having flown for Eastern Airlines.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Blank has piloted all the company’s 346 missions – the first was Nov. 28, 2007. That number will increase to 348 by Friday. Trips this week have included stops in Florida, Rhode Island and Arizona.
He started his charity with a $5,000 donation from Southport Presbyterian Church and a $2,500 gift from St. Barnabas. First Evangelical Presbyterian of Frankfort (Ind.) and other churches have also been generous. He later secured a $250,000 loan through The Farmers Bank in Frankfort to purchase a Mitsubishi MU-2 turboprop airplane – affectionately known as Nellie.
“We were turned down by a lot of banks, but they bought into our program and wanted to partner with us,” said Blank, who frequently speaks at churches and before businesses so he can get his ministry work in front of people. “We are supported solely by donations. God has provided for us and our ministry.”
The plane was customized to include an air ambulance system, a cardiac and blood pressure monitor, suction, an automated external defibrillator, ventilator, IV fluids, a nebulizer and a baby pod – a virtual flying intensive care unit.
As the business grew and more people learned about it, the demand for services grew. Nellie was flying so much that she was routinely in the shop for maintenance – as required by the Federal Aviation Administration – and grounded about two months out of the year. Two to three weeks of upkeep are required after 150 hours of flight time.
“During that down time,” wrote Grace on Wings medical director Dr. James Milstead in ‘Answering the Call,’ a book about the company’s history, “we still received urgent requests to help patients, but we had no backup aircraft to continue the ministry. We began to pray fervently for God to provide us with a second MU-2 so we could stay operational continuously.”
Those prayers were answered when a second plane – Abe – was purchased in the fall of 2013 and customized to be Nellie’s identical twin.
Grace on Wings (www.graceonwings.org) is operated by a skeletal crew of paid staff members and a volunteer corps of about 50 people.
Mike Ford, a retired air traffic controller, and chief flight nurse Lisa Luckoski work with every patient’s family in planning the flights.
One of the volunteer flight nurses is Shelli Engle, who’s been with the organization since Day 1. “Hal and I are longtime friends. We used to work together at Methodist,” she said. “I love what I do here, and that’s taking care of patients. There is nothing I would rather do. If I didn’t have to make a living, I would volunteer all of my time here. Our goal is to show the love of Christ to all we come in contact with. We provide bed-side-to-bedside service. We pray over our patients before they are transferred from their ambulances to our plane, and we pray over them after they are under cover at their new facility.”
When not at her full-time job as a registered nurse at OrthoIndy South Surgery Center and Clinic, Engle serves as the event coordinator for Grace on Wings, where she volunteers about 14 hours a week. She and Blank recently hosted a field trip for children in a vacation Bible school sponsored First Christian Church of Beech Grove. Her daughter, Chelsea, is Blank’s administrative assistant.
“The kids loved it!” said the church’s Marcia Dorsey and Judy Hensley, who along with Katelynn Wright organized the trip. The children were chauffeured to the airport in a bus that resembled an old trolley.
After hearing a presentation about the ministry’s work, the 35 children and 15 adults were issued “pilot’s licenses” and “boarding passes” before exploring the planes. The children had collected $150 for Nellie’s gas tank, or “belly,” as they called it.
The planes can be described as cramped, but there is room for two pilots, the patient, the two required medical personnel, one or two members of the patient’s family and a little luggage.
Flights requests – nothing less than 150 miles will be considered – throughout the continental United States are coordinated and scheduled as quickly as possible while taking all measures to insure patient safety.
The average flight is 750 miles and costs about $7,700, a fraction of the $25,000 charged by commercial air ambulance services. Grace on Wings donates all of its professional services: pilots, medical staff and medical supplies, but the cost for fuel, maintenance and insurance ($100,000 annually) must be covered by the patient, family or insurance company.
“Out goal is not to maximize our profit but to provide high-quality medical care, emphasized Blank, whose ministry’s yearly operating budget is $1.1 million. “We do it for the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mission reports are written after each flight, and they provide a recap of the endeavor and some background on the patient. Engle always writes the report when she flies. An excerpt from Mission 330 reads: “I love these flights because they allow me to see God’s glory in creation from a perspective that I do not get every day. The majesty of the clouds, the mountains, the snow, the stillness, the peace and yes, even the turbulence.”