A wing ... and a prayer
by Carolyn Drinkard
“… our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.”
(1 John 3:18, Good News Translation)
The “unlikely three” now spend their days doing “Kingdom Work.” (From left) Johnny and Rosalyn Sales, and Tommy Lee are often compared with Ecclesiastes 4:12, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Pilots for Christ in Monroeville is one of 22 chapters in the Pilots for Christ International organization. This group of volunteer pilots and nonpilots provide air and ground transportation for individuals and families in need.
Established in 1994, PFC Monroeville is the only chapter of its kind in Alabama. Its service area also includes Georgia, Mississippi, Southern Tennessee, Northern Florida and Louisiana.
PFC is a nonprofit, nondenominational ministry established to transport ambulatory patients unable to travel by other means. PFC is neither a charter service nor an air ambulance. Instead, PFC flies patients free of charge. All of their flights are made possible by generous donations from individuals, churches, civic organizations, businesses and foundations. PFC’s only purpose is to show Christ’s love.
PFC does this in other ways, too. They deliver medical and humanitarian supplies during times of disaster and ferry ministers and missionaries. In addition, they work with the Wounded Warrior Project and Veteran Airlift Command to help U.S. veterans in times of need.
Testimonials on their Facebook page tell it best.
David Wright spoke poignantly of his wife Tammy and her desire to spend her last days at home. With the help of PFC, her wish was honored.
The journey of 9-month-old Tenley Norman, diagnosed with a malignant extrarenal rhabdoid tumor, captured the hearts of everyone. PFC flew the family to MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, Texas, where Tenley went through 31 weeks of chemo. The family’s posts were moving and inspirational, reflecting their gratitude and appreciation.
One of the original founders of Pilots for Christ is Tommy Lee. He comes from a family of aviators, and his father donated the land for the Monroeville Airport, originally called Lee Field. Since 1994, he has flown in donated aircraft taking patients to and from their doctors. Tommy calls the businesses that donate their planes and the pilots who fly them "The Lord’s Army."
Tommy’s devotion to helping others is well-known throughout South Alabama, but few know that in 23 years he has never missed a flight. Another little-known fact is that in all the flights he has flown for PFC, all of the planes have always cranked. These facts are incredible, given that Tommy has flown in all kinds of weather, all over the United States.
In 2005, the unthinkable happened! A tornado destroyed the hangar that held Poppa Charlie, a plane used by PFC. Incredibly, the plane was not touched! Tommy knows the hands of God were in all of these divine events.
Sadie Margaret Richardson, 2, of Leroy, was flown by PFC to MD Anderson where doctors removed 90 percent of a massive tumor on her spine. Shortly after surgery, she was able to walk, something her medical staff declared “a miracle.” The toddler did not even have to take additional treatments. PFC flew this “Christmas Miracle” home on Dec. 27 and allowed her to help “pilot” the flight.
"God called me to start this as a ministry with two other people," he explained. "I know I am doing what God meant me to do. At one time, we had eight planes, donated by individuals or businesses that wanted to help. Now we have five, all manned with volunteer pilots. God just keeps on blessing, sending me help as needed."
The story of the help that God sent is another miraculous moment in the history of PFC. For years, Tommy and Johnny Sales had been competitors in the car business. Tommy owned Lee Motors, the Chevrolet dealership, and Johnny owned Sales Ford. The two lived right around the block from each other, attended the same church and occasionally played golf together.
In 2012, Johnny went into liver failure. His wife Rosalyn said it was at this point when both realized they didn’t have control of anything, and they had to lay everything at the foot of the cross. When they did, the first miracle happened: Johnny received a transplant and survived.
"While Johnny was ill, the person who checked on him most was Tommy Lee, his competitor for all those years," Rosalyn explained. "He called, visited and offered any other kind of help we might need."
As Johnny slowly recovered, however, he soon found himself drowning in isolation and despair.
"I did not have anything to do," he said. "I remember once when a telemarketer called my home and I talked with him for 30 minutes because I was so lonely. I found myself asking God, ‘What, now?’ Just as clearly as I hear anyone else, I heard God say, ‘Tell everybody!’ I didn’t know what that meant then, but I knew He had something else for me to do."
Johnny found what God had for him to do at his church’s weekly supper. When he and Rosalyn arrived, the only two empty seats were across the table from Tommy and his wife Lindy. As they chatted, Tommy told some of the stories of his work with PFC.
Johnny said, once again, he heard God speak, "I want you to help him."
The Sales obeyed, showing up at the PFC hangar, volunteering in any way they could. Each felt they were doing what God wanted them to do. Nov. 22, 2013, Rosalyn made her first flight. After this, both knew they had found their calling, doing what they now joyfully call "Kingdom Work."
All associated with PFC know that prayer is the cornerstone of this ministry that Tommy compares to a four-legged stool. The fourth leg bolsters the "unlikely three," as Tommy, Johnny and Rosalyn are referred to. Lindy heads the prayer ministry, connecting hundreds of prayer warriors to the needs of critical patients and their upcoming flights.
In the last three years, PFC has experienced tremendous blessings, resulting in amazing growth! Through God’s grace and contributors’ generous donations, PFC has been able to hire a full-time, professional staff.
Tommy, who serves as president, retired and came on board the ministry full time, giving him more opportunities to fly and attend to the upkeep of the aircraft. Since then, flights have increased from less than 60 to over 324 in 2016.
Rosalyn has used her skills in public relations and development, spreading the PFC message in over 200 churches and countless schools, civic organizations and businesses. She has told their story on the "Nancy Grace Show" and TBN, giving PFC a national audience. She has written numerous grants and corporate proposals, and worked with various other media outlets to tell their story.
Blake Bauer, a corrections officer in Fairhope, had a rare form of bone cancer. PFC flew Blake and his wife Amanda to MD Anderson for treatment. Pictured with his young sons, Cameron and Cayden, Blake earned his heavenly wings in November 2016.
Johnny listened to the Lord when He told him to "tell everybody," and has moved the ministry into the digital age, expanding PFC’s social media venue to eight different markets with over 200,000 recipients a week. He has produced YouTube videos to introduce the ministry to an even larger audience.
All of these things have helped to increase community support from $177,700 in 2013 to $894,600 in 2015. In 2016, contributions exceeded $1 million.
In 2016, PFC purchased the hangar. When they were led to renovate the area, almost everything was donated. Inside the hangar, a Wall of Celebration bears the names of those who have "received their wings in Heaven." Nearby is a Prayer Room to accommodate the PFC prayer ministry. Since staff members always pray before and after each flight, this room is used quite often. It is also a place for family members to have special moments with their loved ones before each flight. In addition, local pastors of all denominations gather here for Bible study each Tuesday.
In 2017, PFC’ s dream of purchasing its own plane became a reality.
"This is the first time we’ll own our own plane," Tommy said. "This is a new era; a new stage for PFC. We’ll be able to go 24-7!"
The new plane is larger and equipped with updated avionics. It contains special seats designed to make patients and their families more comfortable. It also has more insulation to make the trip less noisy. Even more patients can be served, as PFC will be able to use their own plane, as well as the additional volunteer planes. They hope to have their new plane in the hangar and fully operational by early September.
Volunteers for PFC form strong, personal relationships with their patients, joining with them to pray for a positive outcome. This is not always God’s plan, however, and it is at times like these that the staff find they need God’s help to renew their own spirits.
"We’re only human," Tommy said softly. "When someone doesn’t make it, especially a child, it’s tough. I tell our volunteers that we have to guard our hearts. We love all of these people, but we have a job to do. We must be able to serve the ones who come the next day!"
And come the next day, they do! In the past 23 years, PFC has served almost 2,000 families with nearly 1,000 flights. In July 2017, PFC flew 67 families, the most they have ever flown in one month! Tommy estimated over 90 percent of the past flights have been cancer-related. Even though the names on their Wall of Celebration are personal stories of courage, strength and love, sadly too many new names are appearing.
||PFC believes its ministry fulfills an essential need in the area. Because they receive no government funding or reimbursements from insurance, their funds come from individuals, churches, civic organizations and businesses. Anyone who feels led may mail tax-deductible donations to:
Pilots for Christ
P.O. Box 707
Monroeville, AL 36461
You can contact Pilots for Christ by email at email@example.com, follow them on Facebook at “PilotsforChrist” or visit their website, www.pilotsforchrist.net.
Still, Tommy and Lindy, and Rosalyn and Johnny keep pressing onward, for they know they are unlikely vessels, filled with God’s grace and used in ways none of them could have ever imagined.
"This is not what any of us expected to be doing," Johnny explained. "God stretched us and made us grow in areas we did not realize we needed to grow."
For a volunteer organization in a small town with just over 6,000 people, PFC Monroeville has now become the most active chapter of Pilots for Christ International.
"God arranged this whole thing," Tommy added. "We serve where God puts in front of us. Everybody here does the job God asks us to do. We want this ministry to continue to God’s glory, with or without us."
Tommy paused, looked down and, with a slight catch in his voice, continued.
"We’ve all had too much mercy ourselves not to keep doing God’s work."
Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.