Tuesday, July 15, 2003

His flights give rise to dreams

For 12 years, Dan Spencer used his helicopter to help the people of Africa, and now that he's in Cincinnati, the Air Care pilot continues to make a difference

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Air Care pilot Dan Spencer.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
A 4-year-old, thrown from a car during a crash, was unconscious. "The prettiest little girl," is how Air Care pilot Dan Spencer remembers her.

He'd flown a doctor and nurse to the scene. As they went to work, the pilot turned his head. Sometimes he can watch. Sometimes it's better not to.

"You start thinking, that could be my child," says the father of three preschoolers. "It affects you emotionally, but I have a job to do, and if I'm going to help save a life it's not going to be through my emotions. If I get too involved, I'm not at my best at flying."

So he's learned to temporarily shove aside his emotions while keeping his priorities front-and-center. For 38-year-old Dan Spencer, flying a helicopter has always been about helping people.

Although new to University Hospital-based Air Care - the Sycamore Township resident's first flight was in February - he's a veteran of humanitarian work, having flown 12 years in Africa for a Swiss-based Christian relief and development agency called Helimission.

He no longer lands helicopters in jungle clearings or worries about his rotor blades blowing the thatch roofs off of mud huts. These days, he's more concerned about dodging urban hazards such as towers, skyscrapers, antennas and utility wires.

But while the flight paths have changed, Spencer hasn't. He's still a soft-spoken pilot packing plenty of compassion.

Early on, he knew the course his life would take. This son of missionaries was born in upstate New York but spent much of his formative years in Africa. He was 9 when he heard the founder of Helimission deliver a speech describing the organization's work in Third World countries.

"From that point," Spencer says, "I was determined that's what I would do."

At 26, armed with two college degrees (religion and philosophy; and social work) and licenses to fly and maintain helicopters, he took a Helimission assignment in Ethiopia. He would spend 10 years there; two more in Tanzania.

Helimission partners with a variety of humanitarian organizations such as CARE, Save the Children and Food for the Hungry. When such groups needed access to remote, undeveloped regions to provide vaccinations, build schools and hospitals, drill wells, offer agricultural assistance and the like, Spencer was their ride.

He maintained a home in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, but much of his time was spent in the country living in mud huts or tents.

By the mid-1990s, all Spencer's efforts were focused on widespread droughts that threatened millions of lives. He helped relief workers search for the hardest-hit areas, scoping out suitable sites for airdrops and feeding stations.

In villages, he came face to face with the effects of famine. Children and the elderly suffered the most, he says. "Elderly" is relative; life expectancy in Ethiopia is 44 years.

"We'd visit people in their huts and they'd be lying among the flies," he says. They were too weak to brush away insects that crawled into their nostrils.

"They saw us as their lifeline."

As such, Spencer and his passengers typically were treated as honored guests. But not always.

In 1995 he flew UNICEF and government officials to a remote area to work on a lake desalination project. The group had written permission from the government, but that meant little to the tribal chief who controlled the region. Upon landing, Spencer and the others were surrounded by armed men who accused them of being spies.

The chief gets duped

The group was imprisoned in a domed, camel skin-covered hut. Soon, though, they convinced the tribal chief that they could verify their story if he flew with them to tribal headquarters. Aboard the helicopter, the chief held a gun to the back of Spencer's head.

"He'd never been higher than a camel," the pilot says. "I spiraled all the way up through the clouds, so he had no idea where he was." Then, instead of flying to the tribal hub, Spencer headed for the nearest city. When the chief realized he'd been duped, he gave up.

Spencer did make occasional trips back to the States, including one in 1996 during which he met the woman he would marry.

"He'll never sit behind a desk," his wife, Cheryl Spencer, says, "... but his life has real purpose."

She understands that purpose. Before she met Dan, she attended a Bible college and studied to be a missionary. She agreed to move with him to Africa.

Heart in the right place

"His heart is with the Ethiopian people, it's with that country," she says. Their children Nicole, 4, and Reed, 3, were born there; Acacia, 16 months, was born in Tanzania.

It was hard to leave Africa. But with their children approaching school age, grandparents longing to see them, and Dan planning to return to college to earn a masters in organizational leadership, the family moved to America.

A skilled pilot such as Spencer can make a fine living in any number of commercial endeavors.

In the end, he and Cheryl concluded only one possibility made sense: medical-helicopter pilot. Spencer received six such job offers, and chose Cincinnati because it's roughly midway between their parents' homes.

Now, on a typical day, he'll make five flights in a twin-engine helicopter that cruises at about 150 mph.

"I don't picture myself out there saving lives, but I do picture myself helping to quicken the medical (attention). The minute we get there, they've got a doctor. One minute might save a life."

And yet, he has not forgotten Africa, where suffering and hardship endure on a scale most people here find hard to imagine. Someday, when their children are older, the Spencers plan to return to continue their mission work.

"Once you get Africa in your blood," Dan Spencer says, "you don't ever lose that."

About Air Care

University Hospital-based Air Care is one of an estimated 250 helicopter emergency medical service programs in the United States, according to the Association of Air Medical Services. Air Care carries a doctor and nurse on each flight, whereas most services rely on a combination of registered nurses, paramedics and respiratory therapists.

Began service: Nov. 1, 1984

Helicopters in use: Two American Eurocopter BK117s. One is in service 24 hours a day (and based at University Hospital); the other is in service 12 hours (and usually based at Butler County Regional Airport). New aircraft cost about $4.5 million.

Patient flights in the year ending June 30: About 1,200

Patient flights since program began: Almost 21,000

Staff: Six full-time pilots; three full-time mechanics; five full-time communications specialists; 11 full- and part-time flight nurses; one chief flight nurse; about 20 emergency physicians who rotate throughout the year.

Types of missions: Accident scenes, 37 percent; hospital transfers, 63 percent

Source: Air Care


In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first flight, this is the fifth in a series of stories about people who take to the air in the spirit of the Wright brothers.


E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com

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