Flight4Lives - A GA Pilot Reflects

Nov. 20, 2012
GA pilots fly 23K miles in a Cessna 172XP to bring attention to the need for organ donations and transplant services

You never know where life is going to take you ... So far, it had been working out quite well; I was in my 21st year with British Airways, in the Captain’s seat of the Boeing 747- 400; a dream job - I flew the world.  Then, in spring of 2009, a stomach issue led to blood tests and to my learning that I had been afflicted with Hepatitis for about 30 years…Yikes!

Dr. Chris Tibbs, of the UK’s Royal Surrey Hospital, said I'd need a 6-9 month course of medications to try and eradicate it. The prescribed drug regimen, while grueling to some, was handled by me well enough. 

So, in the autumn of 2009, to distract us from the many medical issues, I was joined by my dedicated spouse Corrine, a private pilot and BA purser, and we headed off to fly a US, coast- to-coast trip, in our Cessna 172XP. Then, back at our Surrey, England home, on Valentine’s Day 2010, I awoke and began throwing up; a massive hemorrhage ensued with the Royal Surrey Hospital’s Dr. Tibbs working for many hours to save my life…I'm only here today because of him and the amazing team there. 

For two months, I was in and out of a coma, having suffered total liver and kidney failure.  I was then taken to King's College Hospital in London, which is the world's largest specialist liver transplant unit; my wife Corrine was told that I had two weeks to live. On day 14, a suitable organ became available; I received my new liver and began my “new life.”

By then, I had been in bed for two months and would be there for another two. I faced having to learn how to walk again, as my weight had dropped to 130 pounds from 230. My beloved career at British Airways looked to be over but, I was alive - unlike so many who suffer organ failure.  I have since learned much about the importance of organ donations and transplants.  An organ donor saved my life; now it was time to make certain that this second chance I was given would have meaning.  And flying is what I knew and loved so…

With my life seeming to be in tatters, I thought “why not fly our little plane a stupidly long way in support of the importance of organ donation?”  If I was going to lose my Jumbo, I would make our Cessna 172, based at our other home, on historic Nantucket Island (MA,) into “our new Jumbo.”

Where would we go?  Flying east or west meant oceans. Heading north would be was too cold. That left one option - flying south: “Cape Cod to Cape Horn.” So the incredibly supportive Corrine handed me a map of South America; I found a pen as long as a 49 gallon tank of gas and sure enough, it was possible. People nodded politely and changed the subject when I discussed the flight; they thought it was the meds or that I was simply crazy.  Neither was true!

By now, I had cracked my femur and two ribs due to my bones losing density. In spite of these setbacks, bit by bit, plans for the flight began to come together as did the urge to head out to the Falklands Islands, 400 miles offshore.  Only an “idiot” or a Brit would fly to the Falkland Islands in a Cessna 172.  So much for “not being crazy.”

Leaving from Nantucket Island, Corrine and I flew to Florida and beginning in January, 2012, we flew throughout the Caribbean. We crossed to the South American mainland and after stopping in Guyana, flew down the east coast of SA - all the while getting plenty of press talking about organ donation issues. Our angle was that perhaps we were doing this 23,000 mile flight in the “wrong” airplane, but then it would not have been as much fun… And frankly, the Cessna 172XP performed beautifully.

Most of the flying took place below 1,000 feet, as we danced among flocks of scarlet ibis, elephant seals and penguins lining the beaches. We were heading from the Roaring Forties into the Furious Fifties when we posted this from our joint blogs on our website, www.flight4lives.com:

We were beginning to see dust storms around us. Our ETA to Rio Gallegos, Argentina was going up and there were no alternates at all. San Julian tower were not answering, Santa Cruz was closed and there had been no radio contact with anyone since Comodoro Rivadavia so with a phone signal, I texted our friend Martin in Buenos Aires for the latest weather. He replied that the wind was 320/22 gusting 38 for runway 25. So, no options, a crosswind on limits, and the sky was increasingly looking menacing. UFO-like lenticular clouds lay ahead of us. The landscape became almost lunar. I made the executive decision to just head directly to Rio Gallegos over the water, so our speed would rise back to 110 knots and we would not waste fuel. Even though only miles offshore, we were still more than gliding distance from it and the sea was angry. The enormity of what we had decided to do dawned on us for the first time.

Tomorrow, we fly for 300 miles over this. Corrine fell silent and after what seemed like an eternity, we again made landfall. Rio Gallegos answered our call, the winds were now down the pipe at a mere 20 knots and the whole thing became a non-event.   Friends Jose and Juan met us and showed us the hangar where Blue Jay would spend the night. Built in 1929, it was used by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince and a pioneering air mail pilot. I hoped that some of his presence might rub off on us for the next day.  We are now further south than London is north and only a short hop from Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. But the 800 miles across the South Atlantic in between will prove to be the real challenge of this journey.

The next day broke with high overcast and light winds, harmless enough for Patagonia. We hadn't slept much and after a tiny breakfast, we were picked up by our friend Juan, a LAN Argentina Airbus mechanic and pilot with Aeroclub Rio Gallegos. Despite dire warnings the day before about customs and immigration, the Argentines treat a flight to Stanley as a domestic one. This was how it would be for us too, so it was just a matter of some photocopies and a flight plan. Simple, right?

Then they asked for the number of our Sat Phone and whether we had HF... Uh oh, "Sure we do and, um, we'll phone you later" as we ran to the plane and started the engine. By the way, little planes never have HF. Before we could taxi, we had to do an HF radio check on “5499.”  So we sat for several minutes while I played with a variety of knobs in case the tower had binoculars, and came back with "unable, maybe it'll work when airborne".

From the tower: "OK, cleared to taxi". So we had gone from nervous about going, to nervous about not going, to relief that we were nervous again about going.  We took off, turned east, watching the coastline disappear behind us and as we climbed, the tailwind that we had expected began to appear. We had about 40 knots plus our 115 knots so 3 hours to Stanley and 2 hours to landfall. Then, the Sat Phone and HF thing began again. Approach passed us to Comodoro Center who wanted us to call them on the Sat Phone. I gave them our iPhone number and truthfully told them that we were receiving a ‘call failed’ message every time we rang. It killed lots of time going back and forth like this; we relayed the only position report through another airliner so quite what the problem was, we’ll never know.

At the halfway point, we began to hear Falklands Island Radar call us although, with our little radios, they could not yet hear us. Eventually, they could. Soon thereafter, “Eagle One” and “Eagle Two” called us to confirm our altitude. We looked out the left window and saw a Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoon fighter, nose pointing skyward to match our slow speed, glide slowly by us just a few hundred yards away. "Welcome to the Falklands" the pilot cheerily said as he lit the burners and disappeared with Eagle Two blasting by seconds later…Wow!

I must say that ‘My whole flying life could be boiled down and the essence of it would be these few moments.’  Minutes later we landed at Port Stanley – a dream come true.”

Further tales and pictures can be found at our website, www.flight4lives.com, as well as links to register as an organ donor or donate money to London’s King's College Hospital, who saved my life and the lives of countless others.   This was the purpose of the trip; to do something really crazy in a tiny little plane and hopefully get people to think about:

  • Are you an organ donor? Please sign up if you aren't. You will save lives. And please talk to your family about it so they don’t override your wishes when the time comes.
  • Please donate to King’s College Hospital or any transplant center if you can. Every bit helps people who really need help. Please visit our website www.flight4lives.com for details.
  • Have a quick test for Hepatitis next time you do a proper physical – Doctors are advising this now.

The lesson that we learned from this experience – so far:  You really never know where life is going to take you.  Despite the horrors of what happened, further surgery that I will need and issues that I’ll have for the rest of my life, this trip wouldn't have happened if I hadn't fallen sick.  I really wouldn't have missed this trip for anything so, in some kind of weird way, it was all worth it. There were so many people and companies who helped make this all possible, such as Signature Flight Support, Lightspeed Aviation, Jeppesen, Creative Airport Solutions and Air Journey.

We are so very grateful for their support, as well as amazing press coverage including UK Daily Mirror, Buenos Aires Herald, Penguin News, Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror, Providence, RI press, radio stations WXTK and WACK and the incredible interest from Flight Global at Farnborough 2012, resulting in a feature article in FI’s Air Show daily paper.

AND, WHAT DID WE LEARN THAT WE CAN SHARE?   “Don't waste a second. As the saying goes, life is not a dress rehearsal…Don’t treat life like it is an empty water bottle? Recycle it and pay it forward.  Make your dreams come true with someone who supports them, as I did with my wife Corrine… And of course, find your joy in the skies!”

About the Author

Chris Mclaughlin