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Ray leans back, nearly invisible in the dim cockpit, scans the instruments again, stifles a yawn. It’s 2 am and the round trip between Muskegon and Boston would have been a long haul in any case, even without the 60 knot headwinds we’ve bucked all the way home.

It’s Ray Kapteyn’s first mission for Wings of Mercy but he knows the drill. For years, during his career as a missionary pilot, he flew injured people to hospitals around Africa. This trip came up suddenly, but he’s used to that.

Behind him, in a car seat strapped into a passenger berth, little Kolten sleeps. He is three years old and receives most of his food through a port in his belly and medicine through a second port in his chest. He and his mom have been in Boston for two weeks, spending a lonely and painful Christmas at the Children’s Hospital. They came in an air ambulance because Kolten was too sick for a commercial flight. Too sick, even, for a Wings of Mercy flight.
When Kolten was finally discharged from the hospital this morning, they took a cab to a place called Rectrix – an impressive airport building that serves impressive people visiting Boston on private jets. Shayla was not feeling impressive. It had been another rough day. She has three more kids at home, all sick, and she’s been on the phone with her husband, who is as worried and exhausted as she is. And the special formula Kolten needs to survive – she has only enough for one more day. For more reasons than she can count, she has to get home. And so, she cradled her fragile son, lugged their supplies into the opulent lobby, found a seat in the corner, and waited for a plane that would not come.

A Wings of Mercy flight was dispatched from Michigan this morning to pick them up, but – after takeoff – the pilot noted a mechanical problem and had to turn around. Six hundred miles away, trying to quiet her son in the lobby, Shayla answers her phone, hears the bad news, pushes down a sense of panic.
Grace Spelde, who manages the office at Wings of Mercy, got the call, too, and she has been on the phone ever since, calling every pilot she knows; kidding, cajoling, pleading. She needs an airplane to bring Kolten home. It has to be big enough for Shayla and Kolten, his stroller and his medical supplies. It has to be fast enough to make the 1,300-mile round trip. It has to be today.

Hanna Koen works at Retrix, stands behind the impressive wooden reception desk, taking care of busy pilots and passengers. She looks the part; blonde hair, friendly smile, stylish dress. She noticed the little kid and his mom sitting alone in the lobby, the strange medical equipment on the child’s back. They didn’t fit the profile, didn’t seem like the kind of people who pass through this building. She walked over to see if they were ok and heard about Kolten’s hospital visit and the cancelled flight. After a while, she got them some lunch, then found someone to cover for her while she played with Kolten and talked to Shayla. As the afternoon wore on, another plan occurred to her. She would borrow the company car and take them herself, drive them home to Michigan.

Terry Boer has been the president of Wings of Mercy since Peter VandenBosch, its founder, passed away. He’s a busy guy, wrestling with the pressures of his growing aviation business, but he took the call from Grace around three in the afternoon, heard about Kolten’s need, heard there was no one else who could help. Two hours later, an airplane climbed away from Muskegon and turned toward Boston – Terry’s airplane, flown by one of Terry’s pilots.
We made it into Boston by 9 pm and hustled across the cold and windy ramp, through the sparkling glass door and into the Rectrix lobby to find Hannah kneeling on the floor, playing with Kolten while Shayla got their things ready. The line guys serviced the airplane while we set up for the return leg, then packed the bags and strapped in the car seat. By ten pm, we were clawing our way out of Boston’s airspace for the five-hour trip back to Michigan, a long, slow droning interrupted only by a fuel stop in western New York.

It’s just one of the 8,000 missions Wings of Mercy has flown, but it reminded me what makes this work. People like Grace and Hannah and Terry and Ray who set their lives aside for a while to help someone in trouble, remembering that “whatever you do for the least of these, you’ve done for me.” People like Shayla and her husband who set their lives aside – forever, if necessary – to serve and protect those they love.

In the cockpit, Ray scans the instruments, stifles a yawn. In the back, Shayla watches Kolten sleep. It’s been a hard Christmas, but they are going home.