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Two Middlesex volunteer pilots carry blood, hope to attack site

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

By Alisha Hipwell

Bob Ferree was in a Starbucks in Monroeville. Christopher Hayden was in a lounge at the Butler County Airport.

Like most Americans, the two Middlesex men will never forget where they were when they learned of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

And like most Americans, they at first felt helpless, unable to do anything for the victims or the rescue efforts.

Unlike most Americans, Ferree and Hayden soon got a surprising chance to make a hands-on contribution.

Fewer than 24 hours after the attacks, the two pilots flew into White Plains, N.Y., completing the last leg of an all-volunteer mission to deliver 14 boxes of blood -- at 40 pounds each -- from the Oklahoma Blood Institute.

The flight was arranged through two volunteer pilot networks, AngelFlight and its Bridgeville-based counterpart, Volunteer Pilots Association. The two organizations provide free air transport for those in medical and financial need.

The dichotomy between the gorgeous blue morning and the agony on the ground was difficult for the two to process. "It was strange how peaceful and I guess soothing it was for us flying -- it's smooth air, it's quiet -- yet on the ground it's chaotic," said Hayden.

Kevin Sell, president of the VPA, contacted Ferree about the flight around midday on Tuesday. He chose Ferree because his Cessna Citation was large enough to handle the job, and also because he counts Ferree and Hayden among his best pilots. Ferree promptly agreed and asked Hayden, the chief pilot for Ferree's commercial real estate business, to join him.

Hayden's interest in flying came from his older brother Paul, a pilot with United Airlines. The 38-year-old was born in England, and moved with his family to the United States in 1966. After graduating from Mars High School, he completed an aviation program at Beaver County Community College, then earned a management degree from La Roche College.

Hayden started his career working as a flight instructor out of Butler County Airport. In 1994, he went to work for Ferree while continuing as a flight instructor.

Ferree, 42, also graduated from Mars High School, several years before Hayden. He went on to Robert Morris College, and in 1984 started Landmark Properties Inc., a commercial real estate business.

He began flying 10 years ago as a hobby. The Cessna is his fourth plane, and he uses it primarily for business travel.

Six years ago, the two hooked up with the Volunteer Pilots Association, which has a network of 200 volunteer pilots in the northeast. "We wanted to basically fly more and fly for a good cause," said Ferree.

Pilots donate not just their time and expertise but their money, too. The individual pilots absorb all the costs of each flight, which average about $350 for a small single engine plane. "They're a great bunch of guys ... I'm essentially asking them to pull $300 to $600 out of their own pockets, and these pilots don't bat an eyelash," Sell said.

Because of its size, Ferree's plane is more expensive to operate, however. "That flight probably cost him $2,000 out of his own pocket," Sell said.

Ferree and Hayden don't consider the time or the cost much of a sacrifice if it means they get to be in the air. "If you can help people and at the same time do what you like to do, that's a double bonus," Ferree said.

The two found it difficult to put words to what they saw last Wednesday. They described a huge ball of smoke sitting directly over Manhattan, with a plume stretching downwind as far as the eye could see.

"Pictures do not do it justice," Hayden said.

Devastating as the sight was, Hayden and Ferree felt strangely insulated from the tragedy. "To me, the distance we were away gave me enough of a buffer that I still couldn't feel the impact ... because I was still 10 miles away and 10,000 feet up," said Ferree.

Often, their volunteer flights provide no such buffer from human pain and suffering. They fly six to 12 missions a year and often are transporting the desperately ill. Ferree and Hayden remember a formerly athletic man in his early 30s, wasted away by muscular dystrophy, who later sent them a poem and letters of thanks.

There was also a young boy, flying with his mother, who had already suffered several strokes and had only a short time to live.

"The sorrow that goes through your body -- the happiness that your own kids are healthy but the sadness you feel for a boy like that -- is unreal. Now that's up close and personal," Ferree said.

Fortunately, some flights are more hopeful. They have transported donor organs as well as transplant patients.

During a week when the nation grasped for hope, the story of Ferree's and Hayden's flight did not go unnoticed. The attention has caught them off guard.

"I'm amazed how many people in the last few days have come up and said, 'Hey that was a great thing you did,' " Ferree said.

"We don't do these things looking for attention. ... We didn't think we were doing anything all that special," said Hayden, who would rather talk about the four years he has spent as a Big Brother volunteer.

The two simply feel there was a task to be done, and they happened to be qualified to do it.

The Cessna Citation flown by Ferree and Hayden will be on display at the Butler County Airport's "Flying High Business Expo" from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday. For more information on the Volunteer Pilots Association, visit the organization's Web site: www.volunteerpilots.org or call 412-221-1374.


Alisha Hipwell is a free-lance writer.



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