Danville man flies to help save lives

August 18, 2003|HERB BROCK

In his nearly two decades as a pilot, Gary Cumbey has played the role of an "angel" and has had a key part in an effort to clip the wings of someone less than angelic.

From boldly participating as a military pilot in a sometimes-harrowing war in Panama, to modestly wearing a "halo" as a civilian pilot in a program that transports seriously-ill people to badly-needed medical care, the Danville man has tried to make a difference in people's lives by, in some cases, helping to save them.

In his spare time, Cumbey helps his wife raise their two daughters, Stephanie, an 11-year-old student at Boyle Middle School, and Christina, a 9-year-old student at Woodlawn Elementary School. Oh yes, he also spends a few hours flying his own plane, a Piper Cherokee single-engine, fixed prop, which he keeps at the Danville-Boyle County Airport.

"I rent out the plane, and that helps me cover the costs of maintaining it," he said. "I also use it to take our daughters to various places for cheerleading competition. And I also just use it for pleasure rides."


While they may not fit the definition of a "pleasure ride," Cumbey gets pleasure out of taking his plane on some very special trips - as an Angel Flight pilot in a national, non-profit program organized by pilots willing to volunteer to lend a hand, and their planes, to people in serious medical need.

"I read about the program in a trade magazine for aircraft owners a couple of years ago and it sounded like something worthwhile I could do in my spare time," said Cumbey.

"I and the other pilots in the program take people of all ages with serious conditions to places around the country where they can get special treatment and care for those conditions," he said. "We (pilots) donate our time and use of our planes. It's the best donation I've ever made."

The program's volunteer pilots and most of their assignments are divided into a loosely-organized "network" of different regions of the country. Cumbey's region includes states in the Mid Atlantic, upper South and lower Midwest regions and most of his assignments come from Virginia Beach, Va.

"I get e-mails with needed flights every other day," he said. "What we (pilots) do is select the ones we have time to make. I understand that the vast majority of the requested flights are covered by someone, somewhere."

As examples of the kinds of patients he has transported, Cumbey cited a 6-year-old girl with "massive burns" and an older woman with widespread cancer, both of whom were flown to clinics in this region of the country.

"My flights have been mainly in the Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio area and have been up to 300 nautical miles in distance," he said. "The longest trip was from Danville to Cincinnati to Bristol, Tenn., and back, and that was six hours total."

The veteran pilot's trip through life began in the same region he now serves in the Angel Flight program.

Cumbey, 40, grew up in Farmville, Va., whose name is descriptive of its hard-working but slow pace and whose notoriety, at least in south-central Virginia, comes from being close to a much more famous Virginia town, Appomatox, where the Civil War ended.

Perhaps inspired by the two key players in the Confederate surrender at Appomatox, Cumbey enrolled after high school at the alma mater of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1985, leaving as a second lieutenant in the Army.

Cumbey specialized in air assault night combat and flight training. From 1986-87, he was stationed with the 7th Cavalry in the de-militarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. In 1988, he was assigned to Fort Ord in California.

He was deployed in April of that year to Central America, where he took part in what he calls the "Panama saga." At Fort Howard near Panama City, his was the pilot of a Blackhawk helicopter.

"The public reason (for his unit's mission) was to train troops already stationed there. The real reason was to reinforce them and prepare for a possible confrontation with Panamanian forces as the Reagan administration and then Bush administration were turning up the heat on dictator Manuel Noriega," he said. Noriega was indicted in 1988 federal drug charges.

"My job was to go on flying missions at night and to train others in night air combat," said Cumbey. "Our aviation capabilities at the time were in bad shape. The airport there mainly was used for receiving and distributing disaster relief aid. Pilots were not trained in night combat and night vision."

Cumbey also was involved with special forces.

Though he was a pilot, it was on the ground where Cumbey experienced the most "excitement" - and danger - during his two-year tour in Panama. That's when he played a role in a "harrowing" event that "seemed like part of an action movie, complete with the chase scene and all."

Cumbey set the scene: "Tensions were extremely high in Panama as Noriega's forces and sympathizers were everywhere. We all had to watch each other's backs."

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