It’s aboard a plane that you get the greatest feeling of the vastness of the world, something Joe Brownlee Jr. has experienced many times as a pilot.
This owner of Brownlee Construction in Knoxville has never been far from being able to take flight whenever he pleases. The two planes he has owned most recently, a Cessna 401 and a Piper Cherokee, have served business and recreation purposes. One trip might be necessary to check on construction projects in neighboring states; others have taken him where few have gone.
Take for instance, a 3,600-mile journey Brownlee took with his dad and a few others for a fishing adventure of a lifetime in a remote Alaskan village.
“At that time, you couldn’t get there except by plane,” Brownlee explained. “There were no roads. That was 30 years ago. There’s still not much of a road.”
He remembers they flew over plenty of fish on their way to their destination. Lakes and streams teeming with them. As for seeing other people, not so much.
“You can’t believe how big a place it is and nobody’s home,” Brownlee said. “We would fly for an hour, 200 miles, and not see a sign that anybody was there or ever had been. Not a road, smoke, not anything.”
At 72, he’s got plenty of escapades he can share of his time as a pilot. His dad was one also, and one of his sons.
On Tuesday, this lover of flight handed over his two planes to a nonprofit called Wings of Hope, based in St. Louis. The humanitarian organization provides medical transports in the U.S. and also serves as missionaries in nine other countries. Wings of Hope pilot Don Hoerstkamp made the journey to TAC Air at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport to take possession of the Piper and Cherokee.
Inspections and other Federal Aviation Administration regulations had to be followed to the “T” before the two long-serving airplanes made their way to St. Louis. Brownlee said he now owns no planes. At least for the moment.
Up, up and away
He got his pilot’s license in 1968 and was flying at a young age, next to his father, who founded Brownlee Construction in 1947. “The year I was born,” Brownlee Jr. pointed out.
When he decided it was time to let the planes go, Brownlee said he knew he wanted Wings of Hope to have them. He has read articles over the years about the projects Wings of Hope takes on to better the lives of others. He contacted them six months ago to get the transfer up in the air.
Hoerstkamp has racked up plenty of sky miles as well. Before he became a volunteer pilot with Wings of Hope, Hoerstkamp also flew professionally, getting his license in 1966. He said he owned a Piper dealership at one time, and also was a flight instructor. He said Wings of Hope has many just like himself — former professional pilots who still love soaring at 8,000 feet.
He said there have been a half-dozen or so planes donated to the nonprofit this year. They come in all shapes and sizes.
“We have had everything from jets to single-engine tail draggers,” Hoerstkamp said. “As far as the planes that go into the mission field, the most popular is the Cessna 206. It’s a single-engine plane that’s long enough to get a stretcher inside.”
In some instances, planes that weren’t operational have been donated. If it’s the Cessna 206, Wings of Hope is very much interested.
“We have sent our road crew out to disassemble an airplane and truck it back,” Hoerstkamp said.”We try to stay away from doing that unless it’s a 206. We will still truck in an airplane like that.”
The longest flight Hoerstkamp has done for Wings of Hope was to Africa. He’s also taken planes to Ecuador and Belize.
Doing good with volunteers
In 2018, Wings of Hope provided transport for 162 medical patients free of charge. The volunteer pilots, mechanics, doctors and nurses along with patient flight advocates must meet strict training and licensing requirements. The pilots must have their commercial pilot’s license and instrument ratings and have logged at least 1,000 hours in small aircraft.
The organization’s 18 volunteer pilots have 222,300 hours of piloting experience.
The website provides an overview of some of the patients who have been served by Wings of Hope. One of them is a girl born with one leg shorter than the other. She was flown from central Kansas to St. Louis Shriners Hospital for bone lengthening. It would have been a 16-hour car ride.
Another is a police officer with cancer. He was flown from Mississippi to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
The planes that Brownlee has donated are not suitable for flying medical transport, said Carol Enright, communications manager for Wings of Hope. Neither of them can accommodate a stretcher for non-ambulatory patients. Wings of Hope will sell the planes to fund its programming.
As for how far the Wings of Hope planes in the U.S. will travel, Enright said they transport within a 600-mile radius of the St. Louis headquarters. That would include East Tennessee.
The international programs in nine countries, by comparison, impact close to 60,000 people annually, she added. Those countries include Belize, Cambodia, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Nicaragua, Zambia, Tanzania and Paraguay. In every case, Wings of Hope partners with an in-country organization.
For instance, in Tanzania, they partner with Flying Medical Services (FMS) providing fly-in medical clinics to 25 Maasai settlements, focused on prenatal and infant care, Enright said.
“In 2018, FMS treated 30,620 patients, vaccinating 18,917 children and providing 5,772 women with prenatal care,” she explained.
With stories to share
Brownlee and Hoerstkamp could swap stories for hours and probably did as Hoerstkamp was in town for a few days. Brownlee said planes were and are a mode of transportation for him, not a hobby or something not taken seriously. He admits to doing rolls — not to be showy — but in order to learn how to come out of one should he get into an emergency situation.
It will be different now that be doesn’t own a plane. At least he doesn’t at the present time. But, spend a little time with this seasoned pilot and you get the impression one will be near and accessible.
“My whole life I’ve had planes,” Brownlee said. “I have never been without a plane, in 72 years.”