History of LifeLine Pilots
Founded in 1981 by Wanda Whitsitt of Champaign, IL, LifeLine Pilots, 501 (c)(3), began as a small group of pilots in Illinois who envisioned using their special skill of flying to help people with emergencies to reach medical centers. Originally, there were 40 pilots coordinated by a group of volunteers. A total of 40 missions were flown the first three years. After five years, the group separated from the state agency in order to expand the service area outside of Illinois. Criteria was expanded to include financial need and logistical concerns as well as a time element. An answering service was engaged to take calls and refer them to the volunteer mission coordinators who were board members. Our 100th mission was flown in 1987.
After thoughtful and intensive consideration, the move was made to open
the office at the Peoria, IL airport and broaden the scope of our activities
in order to fulfill our stated mission. A steady growth in mission activity
has underlined the importance of this decision. To date, over 1,000,000
passenger miles have been flown with a volunteer core of over 500 pilots. The service area grew
to include the Midwest States. LifeLine Pilots has a cooperative
relationship with several other volunteer pilot organizations that allows
them to facilitate missions beyond those states.
The need of general aviation services to those with transportation barriers continues to grow. LifeLine Pilots seeks to fulfill this need by recruiting pilots willing to serve of themselves and their gifts.
One of the privileges of being a senior citizen is the opportunity to reflect on your past and pick out those defining events that had a great impact on your life. Certainly, the development of LifeLine Pilots would be at the head of the list for me.
It is hard to realize that the organization is now 25 years old. Since 1981, in an effort to spread the word about this project, I have given over 60 presentations to nearly 1600 people. In nearly every case, the same questions are asked.
How did LifeLine get started? The formation of LifeLine Pilots was not a planned event. When our last child was in high school, I told my husband we could fulfill his dream of getting a pilot’s license and do it together. He took two hours and quit because of business commitments. The transition from PTA to VOR was greater than I anticipated, but getting my license was a proud achievement. That Christmas, my friends got negligees or Giorgio perfume. I got a fire extinguisher and a tow bar.
What was the first LifeLine mission? With a corps of 40 pilots anxious to use their skills to help others, we were excited to fulfill this need as soon as possible. A phone call was received from the police in Carbondale, IL. A murder victim who had been missing several days was found and if the evidence found on the body could be identified immediately, the time of death could be determined. The evidence had to be transferred to the University of Illinois entomology department for this purpose. One of our pilots, accompanied by an undercover agent, accomplished the mission within hours. (This was not exactly what we had in mind for our project, but it was a start!)
What mission stands out in your mind as one of the most dramatic? In
the early years, our criteria was strictly time element (emergencies)
so the bulk of our activity revolved around organ transplants. An eight-year-old
child from Pontiac was on a waiting list for a new liver and kidney.
One afternoon, her mother called to say the organs would be available
if the doctor could get the necessary permission from the parents of
a deceased child. Several pilots from the area were put on alert. At
7 p.m. the doctor from Minneapolis called that it was a go. Because of
extremely cold weather and headwinds, the only appropriate aircraft needed
to come from Chicago. At 10 p.m. Jim Porter, with the help of the FBO
operator, departed from Aurora in his Cessna 421. The family was picked
up in Bloomington shortly after midnight. At the time of departure the
temperature was 8 below zero with forecasted headwinds of 50 knots. Enroute,
the right alternator went out, but after shutting off lights and other
equipment, they were able to use the heater. They arrived in Minneapolis
at 2:30 a.m. and the child was whisked to the hospital for the 12 hour
surgery. Jim and his co-pilot arrived home at 4:30 a.m. Two weeks later,
Jim, on his own, picked up the family in Bloomington and took them to
Minneapolis to visit the child and return them home. The story was picked
up by the Chicago Tribune and sent over the AP wire which resulted in
widespread coverage around the state and increased interest in LifeLine
Pilots. Without the help of these dedicated pilots, the child would not
be alive today.
The growth and success of LifeLine must be attributed to the dedication and sacrifice of many, many people. Any of the 900 pilots who have flown a mission can attest to the satisfaction of being a part of giving hope to someone who badly needs it or if they are lucky, a hug from someone they never met and will probably never see again. As for me, I will take the scent of 100LL to Giorgio any day.
The Whitsitt Family LifeLine Pilots Board of Directors and Staff
LifeLine Pilots celebrated 25 years or service by honoring Wanda Whitsitt at a luncheon held in May 2007 at CMI, Champaign IL.