Walt Fricke flew hundreds of combat missions during the Vietnam War before fortune turned against him. A misfire during landing preparations caused one of the rockets on his chopper to explode, riddling the Army pilot’s leg with shrapnel and sending him to a hospital more than 600 miles from his hometown in Michigan. He spent a year recuperating — a process he says would not have been possible without his parents and his fiancée scraping together the resources they needed to stay by his side.
Fricke recovered, and went on to have a successful career in financial services at what was then known as the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (now Ally Financial). But he never lost his love of flying, piloting his own private plane and suiting up aboard vintage T-28 warbirds for the Trojan Horsemen, a flight demonstration team that performs in airshows. Nor did he forget how much the presence of his loved ones had helped heal the wounds of war.
After retiring in 2006, Fricke began thinking about how he might give back — and help the soldiers returning from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. He decided to offer his own aircraft to fly wounded warriors home or to bring family members to them at local Veterans Affairs hospitals. A friend told Fricke this was too good an idea to keep to himself. He listened, and today Fricke is CEO and air boss of Veterans Airlift Command (VAC). Its motto is: “Combat Wounded. They’ve Got Heart. They Need Wings.” Thanks to his group, more than 2,300 aircraft owners and pilots have donated their time and skills to help some 8,500 wounded warriors and family members come together in their time of need.
VAC allows soldiers who were injured in the line of duty to travel across the country without the costs or complications of commercial flight — security lines and long layovers become infinitely more trying when prosthetics and wheelchairs are involved. The group also empowers pilots and private aircraft owners to make a real difference for veterans and their families. After filling out application forms and registering their aircraft, VAC volunteers answer blast emails requesting transportation or select from a long list of available missions on the VAC site, then take to the skies to serve those who serve us.
The program has been invaluable to veterans like Michael Schlitz, an Army Ranger who sustained severe burns and lost both of his lower arms in an explosion in Iraq. In 2007, when he still required around-the-clock medical supervision, a team of VAC volunteers helped lift him into a private plane so he could join his unit for their homecoming. Another VAC flight allowed Michael Blair, a Marine who became scuba-certified even after an explosion blew through his knees, the chance to take his wife on a diving trip, in part because he did not have to navigate an airport with his crutches and braces.
Fricke says he has no problem recruiting pilots for his program; on the contrary, he sometimes referees a tug-of-war between volunteers eager to offer their help. “This is way bigger than giving people rides,” Fricke says, noting that VAC has helped foster bonds between pilots and passengers that long outlast takeoff and landing.
The organization is formalizing these bonds with a new program called Team-Up, which is designed to encourage mentoring and networking among pilots and aircraft owners, veterans and other community leaders. Retired Air Force pilot Andrew Lourake, who flew Air Force Two even after his leg was amputated above the knee following a motorcycle accident, directs the new initiative.
The secret to Fricke’s success may lie in tapping the very spirit that makes pilots want to climb into cockpits in the first place. “There is something about flying that is the ultimate form of freedom,” says Fricke, who then spoke of what “slipping the surly bonds of earth” does for the soul, a reference to a line from “High Flight,” the aviation poem memorized by United States Air Force Academy cadets and carved into headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. “Because pilots understand freedom in a unique way, they also have a profound appreciation for those who defend that freedom.”