Hero Airlift’s Last Flight
- Published: 07/17/2013
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Thanks to my friends Adam Sanders, Bart Rogers, and the philanthropy of the late Roy Steeley (who founded Royal Vendors at age 67 and AMS, Automated Merchandising Systems, at age 77) and his family, I received the honor to both meet and spend time with American Hero, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, as we flew him from DC to Maine on Friday, June 14, 2013.
American Hero: On April 10, 2012, while on patrol during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was critically injured by an IED (improvised explosive device). The enemy attack resulted in Travis losing large portions of all four limbs, making him one of only five quadruple amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan to survive his injuries.
The quick-thinking and bravery of his fellow soldiers got him safely from the battlefield. But, it is Travis’s personal courage, resolve, and near super-human ability to quickly conquer an indescribable series of challenges that has brought him so far in his 14-month recovery.
Airlift Purpose: As one can imagine, flying heroes like Travis on regular commercial flights, with the hassles of security and boarding, can be quite challenging, to say the least. Since there are very limited government resources to assist with such travel, private companies and benevolent individuals, such as Mr. Steeley and his company, have taken it upon themselves to donate their time and resources to honoring the best among us by making such travel possible at no charge to the veterans or their families.
Travis is currently undergoing rehabilitative training at Walter Reed Medical Center near Washington DC. Our mission for the day was to transport Travis from Washington DC to Augusta, Maine. Coordinated by the Truckin-4-Troops organization and administrated by the Veteran Airlift Command, the plan was for Truckin-4-Troops to bring Travis and his father-in-law to the Gaithersburg, MD airport at 8:30 am. We would then fly them to Augusta, Maine, where he was scheduled to be in his sister-in-law’s wedding. He would also be reunited with his wife, Kelsey, and their 18-month-old daughter.
Mission Itinerary: I met Bart and Adam at Martinsburg Airport at 7:30 am where Mr. Steeley’s Swiss Manufactured, single engine, six-passenger, Pilatus PC-12 was waiting and prepped for takeoff. Bart Rogers has been a pilot for the Steeley family for over fifteen years. Adam Sanders is also a Steeley-family pilot.
We flew from Martinsburg and arrived in Gaithersburg about 30 minutes later, at 8:15 am. Bart’s landing was the smoothest of any landing I remember, ever. Travis and his father-in-law arrived at 8:30. Travis was determined to climb the narrow and steep five steps to board the plane on his own, but after several attempts and two different sets of prosthetic legs he accepted a little help aboard.
We returned to the air a little after 9:00 am. While Bart and Adam cruised us to Maine at 22,000 feet, where – incidentally - the air temperature outside the pressurized hull is 19 degrees below zero, Celsius, I had the honor of sitting next to Travis. Travis shared a few of his Walter Reed excursion adventures and a few impressive videos of him practicing walking up and down various ramps and over and around obstacles. The man snowboards! (Check out http://travismills.org).
Around noon we flew over the most beautiful coastline imaginable to arrive in Augusta, Maine. Adam executed the second landing of the day. It was like stepping from an escalator and onto the pavement of Maine’s capital. Here, Travis was reunited with his wife, Kelsey, and their 18 month-old daughter. After pleasantries and a few pictures, they left to prepare for wedding rehearsal. Bart, Adam and I, however, had a secondary mission, lunch at Thai Chi’, an excellent Thai restaurant a brief stroll from the Tarmac.
We then reboarded around 1PM and were back in Martinsburg by 3:30 PM.
Last Flight: Unfortunately, this flight was also tinged with sadness. Over the past few years Mr. Steeley had used his Pilatus to fly over 20 wounded veterans to various locations across the country. Mr. Steeley’s passing on March 13th, however, and the inevitable selling of his personal plane, will likely make this Hero Flight the last.
It is with gratitude that I close this correspondence with a quote from Adam Sanders. “Mr. Steeley was a great man,” he said, looking back at the plane as we walked from the runway, “A business genius with a humble heart. It was an honor to play a small part in his legacy.”
And it was.