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Life-Saving Missions: Business Aviation Transports Organs

January 25, 2011

It’s usually in the dark of night, on just a few minute’s notice and sometimes in the worst flying weather that business aircraft take off to collect transplantable human organs. NBAA Member company Venture Aviation in Greenville, SC is one of the leaders among organ transportation companies.

“Organ donors are often accident victims whose brain has ceased functioning,” said David Knoblauch, president of Venture Aviation. “Since accidents are often in the wee hours, and can happen anywhere, we regularly fly to the middle of nowhere to collect critical organs. Thankfully general aviation airports are everywhere.”

“People don’t realize how important private aviation is to organ and tissue donations,” said Mark Johnson of Life Point South Carolina, which helps coordinate organ transplants in the state. “Since operators like Venture Aviation have organized donation flights, literally thousands of lives in the U.S. have been saved.” He added that airline flights are rarely available for transporting organs, since airlines serve only larger cities.

Over 100 different body parts can be transplanted, but livers, kidneys, lungs and hearts have a critically short useful life once removed. “Usually, we have only four hours to get a living heart from ‘nowhere’ to the recipient,” said Knoblauch. “We have a strict flying safety program, but our pilots stay keenly aware that someone else’s life is in their hands, too.” The company has ten well-equipped aircraft used for organ transportation, ranging from a piston-engine Beech Baron to a Cessna Citation jet.

Pilot Jennifer Johnson says some flights are more challenging than others. On one pitch- dark flight to Columbia, South Carolina, she said, heavy rain was everywhere. “Even on the most precise instrument approach available, it was blinding rain, the airplane was getting rocked by strong gusting crosswinds and we didn’t see the airport until the last possible second.” When they taxied to the building, there was four inches of standing water already on the pavement.

Organ transplants have been in the news recently. Just this month, organs from nine-year- old Tucson shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green saved a little girl in Boston and brought sight to two other children in Arizona. “Ten years ago, that girl in Boston might not have lived, and those other children might not see because the organ transportation system was so disorganized,” said Johnson. “Business aviation is literally a lifesaver.”

Pilot Jennifer Johnson said “we’re changing lives, giving people a second chance, giving them more time with their families. It’s just precious, precious because what we do is so much more than a job.”

Mark Johnson added that there are more than 110,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, but public awareness of organ donation procedures lags behind advances in organ transportation and technology. “Tell your family members about your wish to be a donor and register online with your own state’s organ donation network,” he said. “If your state has a driver’s license registry program, that’s great too.” Links to state organ donation registry sites can be found at the national organ donation site, www.donatelife.net.