It was my brother Tommy who sparked my interest in flying. When I was eight years-old, he took me out to the general aviation side of Nashville’s airport, then called Berry Field, and introduced me to his 1948 Stinson Wagon. Tommy hand-cranked the wooden propeller, and minutes later we were taking off. I was immediately hooked, feeling a sense of freedom being aloft for the first time. What fascinated me most was the ability to fly for just about an hour and be so far away, landing in a town I’d never heard of–to eat bar-b-que!
I soloed with Tommy’s encouragement when I was 16. I actually left Nashville quietly to visit him when he was a flight surgeon in the US Air Force in 1968 in Macon, Georgia. I planned to spend a month learning to fly at a flight school he had started there, but I didn’t tell my parents until after I soloed in case they objected! They were happy for me after I called. My solo shirttail hangs proudly in my home today.
In college I got my instrument ratings and served as the President of Princeton University Flying Club (the oldest collegiate flying club in America) for three years. In medical school I bought my first plane with Barry Banker, one of my best friends who had flown with me in high school and college. It was a Cessna 172. N5201R.
My favorite plane was the 1954 Apache that I bought for $12,000 when I was a surgical intern at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1979. Two years later I converted it to a Geronimo, replacing the 150 HP engines with 200 HP Continental engines and extensive modification of wing tips and fuselage (the conversion done in Seguin, Texas). I flew this plane for 6 years.
Flying as a Surgeon
As a surgeon, general aviation was my tool to pick up hearts and lungs to transplant back at Vanderbilt. I founded the Vanderbilt multi-organ transplant center, a one of a kind multidisciplinary transplant center that brought together social workers, ethicists, doctors, nurses, organ procurement specialists, and infectious disease experts all under one roof.
Heart transplant would not be possible without aviation–90% of the 150 heart and lung transplants I did required well-timed, seamless general aviation with broad reach, flexible scheduling, and rural airports. In almost every instance, we’d fly to surgically-remove the donor heart, transport it back to Vanderbilt, and surgically transplant into a waiting patient. From the first surgery to the second we had a four hour window–any longer and the the heart and the patient would die. There was no room for error. I would go to Boston and to Canada and to Colorado to do the donor operation and then return to do the recipient operation–all within this absolute 4-hour window. All the time … night after night … year after year … each procedure was this way. General aviation made smaller airports accessible; we had to go where the donors were.
Aviation and Statesmanship
While serving in the Senate, flying allowed me to cover the state and meet with people in ways that would have otherwise been impossible. I bought a half interest in a Cessna 441 Conquest II from owner Senator Howard Baker (former Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate–we were both Majority Leader of the Senate, both from Tennessee, and both pilots) in 1996 and owned it with Senator Baker until 2006. He would use it to get to Washington for business from Huntsville during the week, and I would take it back to Tennessee to use it for constituent work on the weekends. It was a perfect arrangement.
I was able to engage constituents across a state that is 560 miles long. I’d leave Washington after I closed the Senate floor, fly to east Tennessee to do an event, then to west Tennessee and do an event, and then back at home to Nashville, all in the same day. The plane allowed me to travel to all 95 Tennessee counties each session of Congress, and to do multiple events in person everyday, where other colleagues simply could not touch so many people.
Global Aid Via Airplane
On the other side of the world, the Cessna Caravan is the backbone of aiding Africa. I have made use of it in over 15 medical missions. It has allowed me to enter the most dangerous war zones, remote villages, and areas with absolutely no roads. In southern Sudan, we flew planes owned by AIM Air in Nairobi at 300 feet to avoid being sighted by a belligerent and disapproving government of Sudan (a designated terrorist nation at the time) to reach Southern Sudan–no flight plans, no passports, just humanitarian aid so I could do surgical procedures in Lui. We also used and flew a DC-3 owned by Samaritan’s Purse to deliver grain into the Nuba mountains of mid-Sudan, which at the time was a “no fly area” designated by the UN and thus deficient in supplies. We could not leave the plane on the ground because it would be spotted and bombed by the government of Sudan, so for the first few years we would leave it on the ground for only 10 minutes, so as not to attract attention to the region and our endeavors.
The same access proved essential in Bangladesh during the rainy season when the only way to get around to deliver aid and medicine is on a float plane; in Haiti where we flew in a large medical team 3-4 days after the earthquake; and even at home. After Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans airport closed but I flew my Conquest II and they let me in on the Friday after the levees broke on Tuesday. I started seeing patients in the airport. I used a helicopter (I did not fly it!) that the Knoxville, Tenn. Sheriff’s Department had flown down to get from site to site to administer help and aid. I could not have done what I did over these days from a medical standpoint without my plane getting me there and without the helicopter donated by the sheriff to get me around.
My brother, Tommy, says that we have both been incredibly fortunate to have incorporated four passions in our lives: Aviation, Medicine, Business, and Philanthropy. I agree. In my experience, all four have complemented each other and have enabled us both to do things in a timely and effective way that would have otherwise been impossible.