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Giving veterans a lift: Alexandria pilot joins program that flies veterans to clinics for free

Alexandria pilot and veteran, Jim Conn, who volunteers his time and plane for Veteran Airlift Command, took his first volunteer flight Feb. 11. Conn picked up Danielle Francis, an Army veteran, in St. Louis, Missouri and brought her to a doctor's appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. (Contributed)

Jim Conn's passions are veterans, airplanes and aviation, along with always needing to be on a mission. So when he heard about Veterans Airlift Command, Conn said it was the "perfect fit" for him.

Veterans Airlift Command offers free flights to veterans and their families for medical and other treatments. The flights are provided by a network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.

Conn, a 75-year-old veteran from Alexandria who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1962-1966, is now a Veterans Airlift Command volunteer pilot. His first mission was Sunday, Feb. 11.

Conn left Alexandria in his Cessna Cardinal four-seater airplane on a mission to St. Louis to pick up Danielle Francis and then fly her to Rochester for an appointment at the Mayo Clinic.

Total air time was nearly 10 hours. There is no reimbursements back to the pilots for their time, aircraft or service.

"I volunteered because I like to take care of our veterans," Conn said. "And it was satisfying to be able to do this for Danielle. She's a great gal."

Through an email interview with the Echo Press, Francis expressed her gratitude.

"His daughter even made these great goodie bags filled with treats to eat during the flight," Francis said. "Medical appointments are hard and filled with anxiety, but not having to worry about how you're getting to the appointments or the cost of getting to the appointments makes the anxiety go down just a bit."

She was wounded in Iraq

Francis served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2011. While helping build a bridge in Iraq so troops could cross over the Euphrates River, a steel plate dropped on her head. She suffered a concussion and the long-term effects of a traumatic brain injury.

Francis said that after three months of what was perceived as post-concussion syndrome, doctors found a rare bone cancer, chordoma, in the base of her skull.

Ten years later, Francis, who is now a nurse at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, has been through three brain surgeries and three months of radiation treatment. She visits doctors frequently not only in Rochester, but also in Boston and in Pittsburgh.

"I have yearly appointments to make sure my cancer has not grown and the radiation has not hurt my endocrine system too much," she said.

Francis said she heard about Veterans Airlift Command from her Veterans Affairs clinic when her medical team realized she was traveling so much for her appointments.

She said she contacts Veterans Airlift Command after her appointments are scheduled and then they find a pilot. If she were to drive to the Mayo Clinic, she said it would take around 10 hours of drive time one way, while flights are anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours, depending on the type of aircraft.

Once a pilot is found, Francis said the pilot will contact her and they work out the details.

"Jim was amazing," Francis said. "He was so easy to get along with and I was even able to sit in the co-pilot's seat and just talk to him and share our stories together."

She said she hopes to get another chance to fly with Conn, who last year was awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. This is the most prestigious award the Federal Aviation Administration issues to pilots and it recognizes individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years.

Conn said he typically looks for missions that are roughly three and half hours in the air at one time. And most often, he said, one pilot will fly the veteran to the appointment, while another will pick them up and bring them home. He said the reason for this is because most often, the doctor appointments occur over a couple of days.

"I want others to know about this program," Conn said. "Get online or call and see if you qualify. There is no cost to the veteran."

While on her flight with Conn, Francis said she got to cross an item off her "bucket list" as he let her "fly" the plane for a bit.

"By having this kind of service, it makes me want to give back to those that also need it," Francis said. "Maybe someday in the future, you might see me up in the air flying those who need to get to appointments to give back what has been given to me."

How to sign up

Veterans Airlift Command is a Minnesota-based organization in the Twin Cities.

Post-9/11 combat wounded veterans needing help with transportation to medical appointments can contact the organization to sign up.

Phone: 952-582-2911

Website: www.veteransairlift.org

The organization will post the flights that are needed on its website and pilots can then express interest in volunteering for the flights.

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. Besides writing articles for the Echo Press, she has a blog, “Newspaper Girl on the Run.” Celeste is on a continuous healthy living journey and loves to teach bootcamp fitness classes and run. She has participated in more than 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

(320) 763-1242