Wings of Hope
Paul Knese of Earth Angel Aviators (right) with a young patient and Joe Tebo, Earth Angel president. Courtesy of Paul Knese

Jay Rickmeyer and Tom Dougherty have logged a lot of memorable flights volunteering with Wings of Hope in St. Louis, the largest aviation charity in the world. 

As pilots, they have transported children and adults to specialty hospitals for treatment that’s otherwise unavailable. 

Both are fourth-degree Knights of Columbus and consider their volunteering a witness to their Catholic faith. 

“We are doing God’s work by showing charity to all of mankind,” Dougherty said. “We are using our talents to support those in most need.”

The first flight

Wings of Hope began in 1962 when four St. Louis businessmen met a nurse who was flying a dilapidated plane to outposts in Africa. They gave her a used plane and soon received requests from other people in remote parts of the world. WOH responded by rebuilding donated and crashed aircraft and now supports 180 planes in 42 countries and 3,000 volunteers worldwide. There are 35 volunteers and a small fleet in St. Louis. The domestic flights started in 2003, when a plea came to transport a teenager who had complications after surgery to reattach a severed leg. 

A Story of Hope
Paul Knese of St. Louis flew medical missions in Guatemala for Wings of Hope and now is a volunteer pilot for Earth Angel Aviators in Wentzville, Mo. Knese, 72, spent 22 years in the U.S. Air Force as a transport and test pilot. He is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and lector in his parish. 

“I got to fly the first [domestic] mission,” Rickmeyer said. “Since then, I have flown to 125 cities in 25 states.”  

Rickmeyer, 73, has been a pilot since 1957 and is a former aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Army. He started volunteering with WOH in 2001. Dougherty, 67, is a biomedical engineer at Mercy Hospital. He got his pilot’s license in 1966, began flight charity work in 1982 and joined WOH in 2008.

Miraculous results

One of Dougherty’s most memorable transports was when he and another pilot flew to Florida to pick up a boy whose leg was crushed in the earthquake in Haiti.  

“His medical records were written on a piece of white tape on his forehead,” Dougherty said. “He was at the Shriner’s hospital here for a year while they regrew his tibia.”  

One infant from Texas needed multiple procedures to straighten her legs. Two years and 30 transports later, she was running around the hangar. WOH also has transported hospice patients who want to die at home, and in one humanitarian mission, returned the body of a child who had been murdered.  

“Why do I do this? I’ve been blessed with eight children and 16 grandchildren, and they are perfect [in health],” Rickmeyer told OSV. “This is my way of giving back thanks.”  

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.