Flying Hospital draws fishy fundraising

2010-12-04T00:00:00Z Flying Hospital draws fishy fundraisingCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 04, 2010 12:00 am  • 

For nearly a decade, an airplane with an illustrious past has been sitting idle in a parking lot at Tucson International Airport.

Now, it's become a magnet for dubious fundraising.

The Flying Hospital, a former passenger jet outfitted with surgical suites, which once flew medical aid missions around the globe, has been grounded here since 2001. Yet some are still trying to cash in on its former glory.

In California, a man with no connection to the aircraft has been running a website seeking donations for the medical missions that no longer exist.

In Tucson, a man peddling flowers in a local eatery also claimed he was doing so to raise money for Flying Hospital missions, the jet's local caretaker said.

"There's a lot of people who have done stuff like that," said Air Force retiree John Rutan, who watches over the aircraft for its owner, Operation Blessing International, a relief agency founded by evangelist Pat Robertson of television's "The 700 Club."

"Awhile back I was in a Famous Sam's on Speedway when a guy came in selling roses for the Flying Hospital," Rutan recalled. "I said 'Look dude, I don't know who you are, but there's no way.' And he ran out of there."

According to Arizona Daily Star archives, the Flying Hospital was born of a chance chat 16 years ago between Robertson and the owner of the parent firm of what then was called Evergreen Air Center in Marana.

Operation Blessing, headquartered in Virginia, found what then seemed the ideal aircraft at a site in Kingman.

A retired L-1011 passenger jet, built in 1974, was purchased for $4 million in 1994. It was flown to a Lockheed hangar at TIA where it underwent a $14.5 million refurbishment, Star archives show.

In 1996, the Flying Hospital took to the skies on missions of mercy, making trips to Ecuador, China, the Philippines, South Vietnam and elsewhere.

Volunteer medical personnel did countless surgeries to fix cleft palates, crossed eyes and other maladies, with locals often lined up by the hundreds for care, said Rutan, who went along on the missions as the plane's flight engineer.

"We would have people walk for miles and miles with their kids because it would be the only medical help they would get," said Rutan, a one-time flight engineer on electronic combat planes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The Flying Hospital was grounded in September 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks made international travel more complex and aviation insurance more pricey, Rutan said.

Its surgical suites were removed long ago and sent to storage.

Even so, as of Friday, a website based in Los Angeles was soliciting donations for the Flying Hospital and its medical missions through a 1-800 number and an active credit card link.

The site - www.flyinghospital.org - featured numerous photos of the Operation Blessing aircraft and statements such as "The Flying Hospital has been working in many countries providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief for more than 35 years."

The site, set up several years ago, was taken down hours after a Star reporter contacted the man behind it.

Andrew Pike, who runs a small, financially shaky nonprofit called Mercy Airlift in Los Angeles, agreed he doesn't own the Flying Hospital but said he planned to buy it years ago.

The website was set up in anticipation of the purchase, he said, along with a Virginia-based corporation, The Flying Hospital Inc.

"I don't want this to be construed that we've taken money wrongly," said Pike, who said the website hasn't drawn any donations. "It probably should have been taken down years ago. We just didn't pay any attention to it."

Operation Blessing's president, Bill Horan, said he didn't realize, until contacted by the Star, that Pike was using decade-old Flying Hospital photos to seek donations in California.

He promptly sent Pike a registered letter demanding the site be taken down.

"Your website is flagrantly misrepresenting" the status and ownership of the aircraft, the letter said, noting Pike has "no right or interest whatsoever" in the jet.

Meanwhile, as it sits on a patch of pavement at TIA, the Flying Hospital is nearing obsolescence.

Very few L-1011s are still flying today, making it hard to find facilities to do upgrades and maintenance, Horan said. And there's still the problem of high insurance costs and new security demands.

"I don't see it as impossible that this plane might fly again, but it is very unlikely for a variety of reasons," Horan said. "That being said, we continue to try and find a good home for this plane."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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