Giving Back: VFW Holiday Airlift Benefits Hundreds of Veterans and Their Families in Rural Colorado

On Sunday December 10, nearly 30 aircraft will depart in 7 groups from Signature Flight Support at Centennial Airport (APA) in Englewood, Colorado. All together, those aircraft will be transporting thousands of pounds of donated toys and non-perishable food to Greeley (GXY), Fort Morgan (FMM), Burlington (ITR), Las Animas (7V9), Pueblo (PUB), Alamosa (ALS), and Montrose (MTJ).

In Montrose, a portion of the goods will be transferred to two more aircraft to be flown by local pilots to the southwestern Colorado mountain towns of Durango and Cortez.

So what is this all about?

For the past 6 years – this will be the 7th – the Colorado Aviation Business Association (CABA) has collaborated with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and the Precision Flight Team of the Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), to collect and distribute food and toys to needy veterans in Colorado.

What’s the connection to HangarNetwork? Two of us – Iver Retrum and myself – are past chairmen of CABA, and this will be the fifth year I have been the overall coordinator of the airlift.

The holiday charity drive and airlift began in 2011 as an idea hatched between Brittany Davies and her father Ron Davies. Brittany at the time was chairwoman of CABA, and Ron was the Colorado State Commander of the VFW. Brittany was seeking a way for CABA to contribute to the community. She was also a student in the Aviation & Aerospace Department at Metropolitan State College (now University) in Denver, and knew that they had a precision flying team that competed nationally.

After some brainstorming, Ron suggested that, since he knew there were veterans having a hard time financially, why not ask CABA members to contribute food and toys to make their holiday season a little brighter. To deliver the donated goods, Brittany, with her connection to MSU Denver, would engage flight team members to fly them out to VFW posts in rural Colorado towns.

The plan served two purposes: Assist veterans and their families by providing needed food and toys during the holiday season, and also demonstrate how general aviation can be useful in transporting goods to rural areas of the state.

And that’s how it all began.

Initially, goods were flown to airports in Burlington, Pueblo, Alamosa, Trinidad, and Montrose on the western slope. This year flights will go to Montrose, Alamosa, Pueblo, Las Animas, Burlington, Fort Morgan, and Greeley. As mentioned above, of the goods will be transferred in Montrose to local aircraft whose experienced pilots are familiar with the terrain and the airports in Durango and Cortez. The experience and familiarity helps to minimize the risk of flying in the mountains.

For the first several years, CABA volunteers placed donation bins in numerous locations at airports and aviation businesses around the Denver area. The collection drive ended with the CABA Holiday Party in early December, when guests were asked to bring donations in lieu of an admission fee.

Then, that weekend or a subsequent weekend, depending on weather, airplanes and pilots congregated at one of the FBOs at Centennial Airport (KAPA) in Englewood. Colorado. Destination towns were selected based on the need expressed by VFW posts on the eastern side of the state. Planes were met at airfields by VFW folks who helped unload and transport the goods back to their posts for distribution to the veterans and their families.

In the last three years, the event has grown so much that we’ve modified a few things to make it more efficient.

For one thing, the VFW is now handling all of the collection efforts. The State Commanders during this time have made this their official “Special Project,” and their active posts have been doing an outstanding job of collecting funds to purchase food and toys. They have also been key in securing donations from local grocers, and have provided storage space for goods collected during October and November.

CABA has also assigned flight ops and ground ops to two separate coordinators as we’ve gained experience in organizing such a large operation. We’ve also added a comprehensive communications plan and will be tracking aircraft using ADS-B. Pilots will notify the ground ops coordinator of their safe arrival at both the destination airports as well as the return to their home airports.

Not all aircraft are based at Centennial. Indeed, some pilots fly in to participate in the airlift from Front Range (FTG), Longmont (LMO), Rocky Mt Metro (BJC), Fort Collins (FNL), and Boulder (BDU). This actually presented a challenge in 2016, because although the weather was clear at Centennial and pilots were able to launch for the airlift, it was overcast in Boulder, Longmont, and Fort Collins, preventing those pilots from leaving those fields and getting to Centennial.

The result of our efforts is that we’ve been able to assist thousands of veterans and their families. In the early years we were able to deliver food and toys to about 200 families. Last year, 480 families received holiday cheer, and this year we are looking to assist nearly 800 or more families in having a little bit brighter Christmas and holiday season than they would have otherwise.

As a veteran myself I am very proud, and all of us on the CABA board and Hangar Network are very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with the help of CABA members, the VFW, and MSU Denver flight team, and many dozens of private pilots who also volunteered their time and expenses to bring holiday goods to our military brothers and sisters who can really use a helping hand, particularly during the holidays.

 

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Contributing Author & Technical Support
Past Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association