The NBAA Al Ueltschi Award for Humanitarian Leadership seems designed specifically for former U.S. Senator William Frist, M.D. The award, initiated in 2006, “recognizes the spirit of service demonstrated by humanitarian leaders within the business aviation community.” It is named for FlightSafety International founder Al Ueltschi, who helped launch Orbis, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing blindness and saving sight.
Frist, a pilot who soloed at age 16, has used aviation throughout his careers as heart-transplant surgeon, U.S. Senator and humanitarian.
As a pioneering heart-transplant surgeon, Frist said such procedures would not be possible without general aviation, as donor hearts have to be swiftly delivered to recipients within four hours. In reflecting on those days, he explained that he didn’t just wait for a heart to arrive; he went a step farther–he flew to perform the harvesting operation on the donor, then flew the heart back to the Vanderbilt Transplant Center (which he organized 20 years ago) and implanted it in the recipient.
As a Republican Tennessee senator from 1994 to 2007, Frist, who rose to serve as Senate majority leader, spearheaded efforts to improve medical access for Americans and others worldwide, notably leading on bills like the Medicare Modernization Act and the passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
While in the Senate, Frist told AIN, “I used aviation to stay in touch and engage constituents across Tennessee, which is 560 miles long.” He could leave Washington in his Cessna 441 Conquest II (which he co-owned with former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker), “fly to east Tennessee to do an event, then to west Tennessee and do an event and then back home to Nashville all in the same day. General aviation allowed me to travel to all 95 counties, each session of Congress, and to do multiple events every day.” (He noted, “I had to foot the bill for this!”)
Working in Africa for many years, Frist flew a Caravan there to deliver supplies to war-torn Southern Sudan, to perform surgical procedures and to outfit an entire hospital with equipment and supplies. In flooded Bangladesh, he worked with Save the Children and Samaritans Purse, using floatplanes to deliver aid and medicine.
Just after the levees broke when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Frist flew in his Conquest to provide emergency aid to the stranded residents. “I could not have done what I did over those days from a medical standpoint without my plane getting me there and without the helicopter donated by the sheriff to get me around,” he said.
After the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, Frist said donated corporate aircraft flew in a volunteer surgical and medical team of seven doctors and nurses, which he led.
Frist said he became interested in flying when his oldest brother, Tommy, took him up at the age of eight in his 1948 Stinson Station Wagon. “I was mesmerized by the experience. My dream to fly myself was born,” he recalled.
He got his private, commercial and multi-engine ratings while in high school and served as the president of the Princeton University Flying Club for three years in college. While in medical school, he bought his first airplane–a Cessna 172–with a friend, and during surgical training, he bought his “favorite airplane”–a Piper Apache that he had converted to a Geronimo. Twelve of his family members, including his wife and two sons, are pilots.
“Bill Frist has combined his skill as an aviator with his expertise in medicine to reach people in need of life-saving treatment at home and all over the world,” said NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen. “From piloting his own aircraft throughout Sudan to give surgical care, to using aviation to reach and treat victims days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the senator and doctor truly ‘walks the walk’ in assisting those most in need of help. He exemplifies the humanitarian spirit that’s always been a part of business aviation, and we are honored to recognize his pioneering work with this award.”
The NBAA Al Ueltschi Award for Humanitarian Leadership will be presented to Senator Frist at the Opening General Session today.