Pilots for Christ helps those in need

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 26, 2003

Pilots for Christ helps those in need

By Clif Lusk Managing Editor

When Deborah Teal's brother Gary Bell of Panama City was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer in October 2002, the doctors knew right away it was terminal.

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"From the beginning, the doctors gave him no hope," she said. "They're amazed that he's still alive."

Those doctors are at the Houston, Texas M.D. Anderson Hospital, a research hospital where Bell has allowed experimental treatments to performed in hopes of finding a cure.

Those trips to Houston, however, were too much for the Bell to handle.

Teal, a Troy State graduate who moved back to Troy three years ago with her husband Freddie and their two children, knew there had to be a way to get her brother to Houston without driving him. She said he was just too sick to make the 10-hour drive or fly commercial aircraft.

"I didn't know anybody in town well enough to ask them to fly Gary on their private plane. I didn't know how to get him there."

Just two weeks before Bell was scheduled to be in Houston for a surgery that would open his blocked intestines, Teal posed the question to cousin Dianne Peavey.

"That day, Dianne called me back

with a name and number that this family will hold near and dear to its heart forever."

That name was Pilots for Christ, a nation-wide network of volunteer pilots, loaned aircraft and medical equipment.

The Alabama chapter is home-ported in Monroeville.

Teal, a cancer survivor herself, called the number and talked to a pilot.

"They immediately took the information and got the ball rolling, no questions asked - other than the necessary ones. Money was never mentioned," she said.

"They didn't know me from Adam and they (flew the mission). These people were there to help."

Pilots for Christ flew from Monroeville to Panama City, picked Bell up and transported him and two family members to Houston where an uncle picked them up at the airport. Another pilot flew back to Houston and flew Bell home after surgery.

"They even had a volunteer nurse and a hospital bed (on the plane) because he had a suction tube,"

Tommy Lee, a Monroeville Chevrolet dealer, is president of the Alabama Chapter and was the pilot on the trip to Houston.

"There are four or five pilots who donate their time and we have four airplanes that we use," Lee said.

"It's a 'God thing,' really," he said.

Demonstrating that point is the fact that Lee said since his chapter organized in 1994, they've never had a fundraiser and have never asked for money.

"The most amazing thing, I reckon, is

people keep giving and that proves it's been ordained by God," he said.

His group is used mainly for transplant and cancer patients, but sometimes they carry others.

"We're always figuring out a way to help," Lee said. "Sometimes we can't help because the weather is too bad to fly or something like that, but we focus on the financially needy and the time critical patients."

They also pay attention to the needs of area pastors and missionaries home on furlough.

Pilots for Christ, according to their web site www.pilotsforchrist.com, is a 501 (c) (3) charity that was founded in January 1985. In 2002, the international organization flew 316 missions, all of which were provided for through donations.

"We probably have done somewhere around 340 missions since we got started (in Alabama). Normally we do about 3 per month, but

last year we did about 60," he said.

There is a price tag to trips, however. A typical flight from Monroeville to pick a patient up in their home city in south Alabama to cancer treatment centers in Houston will cost about $1,000. That's all fuel costs because there's no paid administrative staff, and all the planes and equipment are donated.

Teal said her main concern was letting people know about the Pilots for Christ mission.

"The main thing is that we wanted to let people know that Pilots for Christ exists," Teal said. "You never know when you or someone that you love may need them."

Lee's thrust is a little different: "The pilots are not in this for any glory to us - God just called us to fly missions and we fly a lot of them."

"We're just privileged to be up front flying

instead of in the back needing the service," he said.

Phil Allen serves as the flight coordinator and can be reached by calling (251) 575-3200. Donations to the Alabama Chapter can be sent to Pilots for Christ, c/o Monroe County Bank, P.O. Box 806, Monroeville, Ala. 35461.