Nonprofit Success Story: Flying Wounded Warriors Home

This veteran pilot provides free, private air transport to soldiers and their families.

(Image credit: ©James Foster 2016)

Kiplinger's spoke with Walt Fricke (pictured left), 68, founder of Veterans Airlift Command, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based nonprofit organization that provides free air transportation to wounded military servicemembers and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes, about how he got started. Here's an excerpt from our interview:

You’re a veteran?

I arrived in Vietnam on April Fools' Day in 1968 and flew hundreds of missions as an Army helicopter pilot. After being severely injured, I returned on Veterans Day to the U.S., where I spent six months in hospitals and a year recuperating. It took my parents and girlfriend—now my wife, Julie—more than a month after I arrived back in the States to arrange to come see me. I was wasting away emotionally, and I really began to heal when they arrived.

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What inspired you to found VAC?

In 2006, I was running the Homeownership Preservation Foundation for GMAC, but I was thinking about retiring early. I knew that wounded warriors find it challenging to fly commercially. I owned and flew my own airplanes, and I realized that I could create a national organization to fly wounded warriors with dignity and bring their families to their bedsides, too.

How does VAC work?

We have a database of 2,500 volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. One of our staff of five—including my daughter, Jen, who is executive director—is on duty 24-7 to receive trip requests. When we receive one, we quickly vet the passenger. Then we identify up to 100 pilots who are appropriate to the mission and blast e-mails to them. Someone usually responds immediately.

Who are your volunteers?

People who fly understand freedom and appreciate the people who defend it. Although it can cost $5,000 an hour to operate an airplane, our volunteers pay for everything.

How many veterans have you helped?

We’ve flown 13,000 passengers so far, some multiple times. We thought our mission count would go down as military hospitals emptied out, but the number has actually gone up as word has gotten out.

How did you fund the project?

I contributed $200,000 to launch the work and develop our website, which has a sophisticated back-end system through which we receive mission requests, schedule flights and track everything. Plus, I spent another several hundred thousand to pay the bills until we started receiving donations, which pay our salaries.

What does it cost to keep VAC running?

Our annual budget is $4.5 million, of which $3.5 million is donated flight value. We hold an annual event with sponsored tables to raise the rest. It's like a family reunion of pilots and passengers.

VAC now owns a jet?

An anonymous donor gave us an Eclipse personal jet for our exclusive use. The manufacturer, One Aviation, refurbished it, painted it with our logo and operates it for our benefit.

How long will you do this?

I have no plans to retire. In Vietnam, I flew kids into combat. Now, I fly vets home. This is the most fulfilling thing I could imagine doing.

Patricia Mertz Esswein
Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Esswein joined Kiplinger in May 1984 as director of special publications and managing editor of Kiplinger Books. In 2004, she began covering real estate for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, writing about the housing market, buying and selling a home, getting a mortgage, and home improvement. Prior to joining Kiplinger, Esswein wrote and edited for Empire Sports, a monthly magazine covering sports and recreation in upstate New York. She holds a BA degree from Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., and an MA in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.