Soaring to new heights

Bobbie Wagner (from left), of the Wagner Foundation; Steve Vonderheide, president of the Burlington Rotary Club; Rick Oloteo, of Wings of Hope; and T.J. Stewart, pilot for BERT (Belize Emergency Rescue Team) gather for a photo Friday at the Burlington Municipal Airport with the airplane the groups helped pay for. (Photo by Ed Nadolski)

Local partnership keeps medical plane flying in Belize


By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

The Burlington area has stamped a new humanitarian entry into a flight log that spans more than 25 years and connects local residents to their counterparts in a small Central American country.

On Friday pilots from Wings of Hope brought the third and most recent version of a medical evacuation airplane – purchased in part through the efforts of the Burlington Rotary Club and the Wagner Foundation of Lyons – to the Burlington Municipal Airport.

It was a flight of thanksgiving made to acknowledge the local contribution to the health and safety of residents in Belize, according to those gathered for the event.

The plane, recently refurbished and retrofitted for medical transport by Wings of Hope in St. Louis, was greeted by three representatives of the Wagner Foundation and three members of the Burlington Rotary Club.

“It’s one of the longest partnerships that Wings of Hope has,” said Rick Oloteo, a member of that international aviation humanitarian organization.

Oloteo said the partnership is now a model for other partnerships established by Wings of Hope.

The airplane – a Piper Cherokee 6 – is the centerpiece of BERT, the Belize Emergency Response Team.

The medical rescue organization was established in the early 1990s by the late Dick Wagner and his wife, Bobbie, of Lyons. In partnership with the Rotary Club and Wings of Hope the Wagner Foundation purchased an airplane – also a Cherokee 6 – in 1991.

That plane served for 22 years, transporting hundreds of patients from the remote areas and numerous islands that dot the country’s coastline on the Gulf of Mexico to the country’s lone full-service hospital in Belize City, according to Bobbie Wagner.

The Wagners were also instrumental in expanding BERT to include a fleet of ambulances staffed by emergency medical technicians.

The original airplane served from 1991 until 2013 when the three organizations again joined forces to purchase a replacement plane. The Rotary Club raised about $35,000 for the purchase of that aircraft.

It was in service for about three years until it was destroyed when a stray dog ran across a runway into the path of the plane and caused it to crash, according to Bobbie Wagner.

Wings of Hope provided a loaner plane that bridged the gap until the most recent Cherokee 6 could be outfitted and prepared for service.

Insurance covered most of the cost of the replacement airplane, which is a 1979 model with a value of about $115,000, according to Wagner.

T.J. Stewart, an Ohio native and Wings of Hope member who has been the pilot for BERT the past year, said the Cherokee 6 will be pressed into immediate duty when it arrives in Belize later this month.

He said the plane averages about 200 to 250 hours of flight each year, which is the result of 15 to 30 trips per month.

“The majority of the patients are pregnant woman or newborn babies,” he said.

The airplane has two forward-facing seats in the cockpit and a rear-facing seat for an EMT alongside an area that accommodates a stretcher.

“It’s absolutely rewarding,” Stewart said of his duty as pilot. “I’ve always wanted to use aviation to help people.”

While many of the past pilots who served BERT have been retirees who volunteered for the duty, Stewart is relatively young.

His goal is to eventually find a job that combines his aviation skills with humanitarian service.

Stewart related the story of a recent patient – a 4-year-old boy who was pulled from the ocean after nearly drowning. The boy was revived and flown to the hospital for life-saving treatment.

“Without the plane, he wouldn’t have made it,” Stewart said.

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