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Flying hope to Haiti

Contributed photo Local pilots Dennis Conn (right) and Chad Versteeg departed from the Alexandria Airport in a twin-engine plane on January 22. They carried 600 pounds of rice, beans, baby formula and sleeping bags for people affected by the devastating earthquake.1 / 2
Contributed photo by Dennis Conn A woman sits amidst the destruction in Haiti. "It's just a picture of her story, of all the destruction and possessions lost by these people, even though they didn't have much to begin with," said Conn.2 / 2

At a time when the country of Haiti was descending into depths of despair, a group of pilots based in Alexandria ascended to new heights of service.

Through two separate missions, they helped supply much needed aid to the country.

A call to serve

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the impoverished nation of Haiti on January 12 demolished the infrastructure, killed more than 200,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of survivors homeless.

The horrific news of the catastrophe deeply affected many people, including Dennis Conn, a local pilot and flight instructor for On His Wings flight academy in Alexandria.

"I woke up after the earthquake and felt that the Lord was telling me to do this mission," said Conn. "I needed to help in Haiti."

On January 14, just two days after the earthquake, Conn met with Steve Neust from the organization Jesus in Haiti. Neust requested help to deliver a load of food, medical supplies and sleeping bags from Alexandria to his mission in Haiti. Conn felt compelled to do so.

Together, Conn and Chad Versteeg, a full-time Air Force reserve pilot in St. Paul, prayed for supplies and an airplane capable of undertaking a support mission to Haiti. They then called Fred Bursch of Bursch Travel in Alexandria to ask if he would be willing to let them use his airplane. He said yes.

An outpouring of support from local people soon followed, contributing money and supplies to the cause.

The twin-engine plane departed from Alexandria on January 22, laden with 600 pounds of rice, beans, baby formula and sleeping bags.

The chaos following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake was so fresh when the pilots flew in that they were not allowed to land at any major airports. Luckily, they could touch down in Jacmel, a town southwest of Port-au-Prince.

Over the course of the 10-day mission, Conn and Vesteeg made the trip from Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic to Jacmel seven times. During each 200-mile journey they transported a load of much needed supplies from a stockpile of pooled resources at Santa Domingo. Overall, they transported 6,000 pounds of food.

During this first trip Conn admits they did not have much contact with Haitians, as the airport was kept secure by the Canadian army.

"At this time many people were stressed and distressed," said Conn. "We heard stories of the suffering of the people, mostly from a Haitian pastor who came to pick up the food."

When the pilots returned home, they brought with them memories of the many prayers said with this man, and of the faces of young Haitian orphans at the airport, awaiting flights toward new adoptive homes.

Back in Minnesota, the men felt a strong calling to return to Haiti as soon as possible.

There was still so much work to be done.

A speedy return

After prayerful consideration, Conn contacted Neil Peterson of Pete's County Market to request the use of his long-range plane. Once again he was graced with enthusiasm and generosity. Not only did Peterson donate the use of his plane, but also $6,500 to help cover expenses. Overall, they managed to raise $22,000 in the community.

On February 25, with added preparation and carrying capacity, the team once again set their course from the Alexandria Airport toward Haiti. This time, Aaron Gould, flight instructor for Alexandria Aviation, and Nick Hoeschen, a flight instructor at St. Cloud State University, accompanied Conn.

Upon their arrival in Opa-locka, Florida they immediately began flying missions. On their daily 700-mile trek, they toted tools, tents and missionaries back and forth between Haiti and Florida. These supplies were more important than ever with the monsoon season looming on the horizon.

"The Haitians were living under blankets, sheets and pieces of cardboard," noted Conn. "With that type of material, you can imagine what it would be like when the rain hit."

Over the course of 10 days, they witnessed firsthand the devastation in Port-au-Prince, but also changes taking place within the country.

"We noticed a real devout Christian spirit that had been washing over the country since the quake," said Conn. "People were finding themselves hitting the bottom, and then finding hope in Christ."

The pilots encountered abundant gratitude for the help they were bringing, and even had the opportunity to attend a church service in Port-au-Prince while waiting for repairs on the plane.

"The people were in awe of how much people in America wanted to help them," noted Conn. "They were so grateful... They still are."

Conn has managed to stay in contact with some of the men he met, via e-mail.

The need remains

Although the initial shock of the catastrophe in Haiti has diminished, the need is still great. According to Conn, there are hopes of having another mission in October to shuttle doctors on medical missions between small airports in Haiti from Cape Haitian. They are in need of donations in order to make this trip possible. For more information, contact Dennis Conn at On His Wings Flight Academy.