Jerry Jacobson and the Veteran's Airlift Command
By Rich Melvin
I had the honor to serve as the Ohio Central Railroad’s corporate pilot from January 2007 through December 2015. The railroad purchased a 1990 King Air C90A, a 6-passenger, 320-mph turbo-prop aircraft. I flew a total of 805 flights in this aircraft, most of which were for Ohio Central business. However, a few of those flights were truly special. More about that later.
Jerry often used his aircraft to travel around the country to inspect locomotives for sale that he wanted to purchase, and then “flip” them for resale to earn a profit. He would travel back and forth from his home in Ohio to Charlottesville, Virginia, to visit his two sons who attended Fork Union Military Academy in the town of Fork Union. When Jerry sold his railroad to Genesee & Wyoming in 2008, his use of the aircraft dropped a little. And when his two boys graduated from the academy, his use of the plane dropped dramatically. The aircraft sat idle for weeks at a time.
The worst thing one can do to a turbo-prop plane is to allow it to sit unused. I became concerned that maintenance costs would increase and flight dispatch reliability would decrease. I began a search for some kind of use for the aircraft that Jerry would approve. We tried doing some charter flights with the aircraft, but more paperwork, higher insurance premiums and increased maintenance costs quickly showed that part-time charter was not a profitable venture. After about a dozen trips, Jerry told me to terminate the charter operations.
I was browsing the internet looking for possible flight opportunities for us when I ran across a very interesting web site. It was the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC), located on the web at veteransairlift.org. Through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots, the VAC provides free private air transportation to post-9/11 combat wounded and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes. The VAC relies on pilots to donate their time and for aircraft owners to donate their aircraft to fly the various missions. As I learned more about the VAC, I realized that this was something that Jerry just might find interesting. Jerry was extremely proud of his military service for the United States Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. In fact, we even displayed the 82nd’s logo on the fuselage of Jerry’s aircraft!
Soon after learning about VAC, I called Jerry at home to tell him about this unique organization. I spent several minutes briefing him about the VAC, what they did, who they did it for, and how they did it. I wasn’t sure if Jerry would approve of this because there was no financial upside to it. Jerry was a savvy businessman, and I wasn’t sure if my “sales pitch” about the VAC was going to work. However, I quickly learned that Jerry’s unflagging patriotism and love of our military veterans far outweighed any financial concerns he might have had.
When I finished my sales pitch, Jerry immediately said, “Richard…” (he always called me “Richard”, never just “Rich”) “…you get set up with those guys and start flying missions for them! I don’t care about the cost, just get us on their list and fly for them as often as you can!”
Right there, in two short sentences, I learned all that I needed to know about Jerry’s love for our military veterans. They were at the top of his list and their welfare far outweighed everything else.
I completed the application and certification procedure to get Jerry’s plane on the list of qualified and available VAC aircraft. Flights were assigned on a volunteer, mark-up basis. VAC published a list of needed flights on their web site. Pilots could go to the list, scan it for flights suitable to their aircraft and geographic location, and “mark up” for a flight. For my first VAC flight I chose a mission out of Gaithersburg, Maryland, going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There would be only two passengers and the flight was fairly close to home, making it very suitable for the King Air.
At the appointed time I landed at Gaithersburg. There, I met a unique Army veteran, Nick Vogt. An aspiring Army trauma surgeon, Vogt graduated from West Point in 2010. A year later he was serving in Afghanistan with the 1st Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. But his service on the battlefield was short-lived. Just two months into his service in Kandahar Province, Nick stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) that was buried in the soil beneath his feet. The bomb exploded, taking off his left leg and mutilating the right. Nick was considered “clinically dead.” He was bleeding profusely, but his fellow soldiers rallied the troops at their Kandahar post and quickly donated 300 pints of blood for Nick. Much more would be needed, as Nick faced many traumatic surgeries. He holds the military record for the number of pints of blood used to save his life – over 400 pints! Unfortunately, Nick lost both of his legs in this horribly traumatic event.
On these flights Nick was always accompanied by his nurse, Lauren Honeycutt. She tended to his medical needs during the trips and helped him get into and out of his wheelchair. Lauren was a cheerful young woman, always very kind and attentive to Nick’s numerous needs.
I flew Nick and Lauren to Mansfield, Ohio, a few times. Nick’s family lives near Crestline, which is a city familiar to any railroad fan. The airport at Mansfield was the closest for these visits with family, and in April 2014 I flew Nick and Lauren there for the Easter holiday. A few days later when I went back to the airport for the return flight back to Gaithersburg, something very special happened. Their car pulled up and Lauren got out. She usually went to the back of the car to get Nick’s wheelchair, but on this day she got out and started running…toward me! Lauren was shouting, “Rich! Rich! Look!” as she held out her left hand. When she got closer I saw an engagement ring on her finger! Nick had proposed to Lauren on this visit and she said, “Yes!“
I concluded by flying only ten missions for the Veterans Airlift Command before Jerry decided that it was time to sell his aircraft. I really enjoyed those flights! They were always very special flights for me, because I was given the opportunity to serve some very special people.
I flew Nick and Lauren on several more flights, but none was as special as the Easter holiday flight in April 2014.