Punching in the emergency access code, Ed Boyer connected with his party across choked telephone lines. It was August 29, 2005 and Hurricane Katrina had just devastated the southern coast. Emergency personnel used a special phone number set up by the Federal Government to communicate during a national disaster. Representing the largest charitable air transportation system in America, Ed knew his team would be flying high on this mission and he needed to reach airline pilots and other service providers immediately.
Preparations for an event like this began years earlier when Ed sat listening to President George Bush's address to the nation after 9/11. Terms like “war on terror” and “Al Qaeda” weren't even on the tips of American tongues when the president promised federal money to help organize and mobilize volunteer networks to deal quickly with national disaster of any kind, from nature or abroad.
“Ah ha!” thought Ed as he listened carefully to the T.V. A national address usually doesn't hold specifics but Ed knew he had available a network of over 7,000 plane owners participating in charitable medical airlift. How could his resources be combined with these efforts? How could he bring his passion to the table? Time would unfold the potential.
About three months later, in May 2002, an RFP or request for proposal emerged asking for non-profits, who already had volunteer systems in place, to apply for monies to develop a plan to implement a nationwide roll-out of the services they offered that could be tasked to action in a disaster response. The request came through a quasi-governmental corporation started in 1993, the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Ed and his staff started sorting through the paperwork necessary to apply for funding. Ed thought back over the history of his organization. Beginning in 1977, he started Washington Aviation Ministry to provide free air transport to patients with a medical need to fly. This came out of his own personal experience of transporting patients in a rented, single-engine six-seat plane for a couple of years. The program grew into several other programs and partnerships, including the Air Charity Network, Angel Flight, the National Patient Travel Center, Mercy Medical Airlift, Air Compassion America, and Air Compassion for Veterans.
“I realized over time that being behind the desk would have a greater impact than flying individual flights,” shares Ed, as the president and CEO of Mercy Medical Airlift, located in Virginia Beach. When the opportunity arose to plan for helping the nation during a larger crisis, he quickly started the proposal process. It took thirty pages to prove that his organization could implement a widespread response -- first for the Mid-Atlantic, then replicate it in the Eastern USA and then, in the third year of the grant, cover the Western USA. What began with a 1/2” stack of forms and proposal requirements ended in the Homeland Security Emergency Air Transportation System (HSEATS).
The governmental grant would cover three years of planning and implementation. It would end August 30, 2005, one day after Katrina gave the system the largest test it would ever experience to date. Because of the immediate need, additional governmental funds were rerouted to Ed's organization for another month to cover operational expenses as volunteer pilots were tapped across America to make the critical flights necessary in a major disaster. Over a half-million dollars is given through the CNCS which completely covered the support needed for the Katrina response.
“The non-governmental world thinks disaster is the responsibility of the government. They think 'Let Uncle Sam take care of it... I believe that you can't just be a Christian on Sundays. The Scriptures are full of references to helping others.”
“The non-governmental world thinks disaster is the responsibility of the government. Few non-government agencies want to put money into it. They think 'Let Uncle Sam take care of it.'” notes Ed, explaining that his team learned to work 20 hours days during those weeks following the hurricane. “I believe that you can't just be a Christian on Sundays. The Scriptures are full of references to helping others.”
The days following the initial impact filled with hourly conferences with FEMA, trips to Alpharetta, GA where the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers occupied rooms with telephone banks, and communications with the Salvation Army, Red Cross and other national disaster response teams. Getting across critical phone lines became a major issue with so many variables to coordinate. The federally operated mechanism for disaster allowed long distance calls to become priority. In addition, satellite phones were available if other means failed.
Ed's networks were able to provide several functions during that time. First, the three years of preparation meant that thousands of aircraft were on hand to transport key personnel and cargo into and out of the water-logged area. Food and medicine were flown into airports less affected by the damaging winds and flood waters. Special populations who wouldn't do well travelling in a bus were given flight priority.
Second, through a partnership with NBAA [the National Business Aviation Association], flights using corporate business aircraft flew a minimum of 350 missions in the two weeks after the initial event. Corporations donated their planes for a limited time, after which medical flights fell on shoulders of the government or the charitable airlift network.
Third, the non-profit response team was able to manage large scale donations of airline tickets. Up to a year after the event, evacuees and relocated residents would need transport on behalf of Salvation Army, the Red Cross and FEMA. Since the New Orleans Airport was closed, planes flew into Baton Rouge to drop off their critical cargo and fly out passengers.
Finally, Ed's team was able to provide air ambulances, equipped with proper medical supplies and devices, in a surge operation which helped evacuate hospitals and nursing homes. While the news showed the military helicopters flying into areas inaccessible by land, there were many other patients still needing evacuation after their buildings took heavy damage and became uninhabitable without power and proper supplies.
“Charitable air medical transportation is about helping patients get where they need to go,” Ed explains. “If you can't travel, it may mean no treatment. Without treatment, there may be no cure. Without a cure, it may mean the end of life. We are here to combat the barriers of distance, time and finances that prevent access to life-saving or life-improving specialized medical care that otherwise would not be available to patients.”
Dubbed the “Father” of charitable air transportation, Ed's commitment to developing a comprehensive system in America withstood the test of Hurricane Katrina and stands ready for any future large-scale disasters. In the meantime, he and his crew continue to facilitate flights going out daily – helping individuals one by one.
BIO: Ed Boyer is the president and CEO of Mercy Medical Airlift in Virginia Beach. An engineer, private pilot and former federal senior officer with the Department of Health and Human Services, Ed’s visionary insight has led him to foster partnerships with dozens of organizations in the fields of health care, government services, commercial and corporate aviation, disaster relief, and charitable lodging. Ed lives in Virginia Beach with his wife, the former Carol Simpkin, a retired educator. They have three sons and two daughters.
Ed has received widespread recognition for his contributions. For his achievements, he was recognized by AARP The Magazine as one of 10 winners of its 2008 Inspire awards. He has won many other honors as well, including the Virginia Department of Aviation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Aeronautic Association’s Elder Statesman Award, and Corporation for National and Community Service’s Spirit of Service Award.
Thank you Ed, for sharing your Story with us.
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