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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On wings of hope

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Del and Annie Reiff, Fonda, have spent years giving their time and energy to help others - in high-fyling fashion.

The couple, both airplane pilots, served a two-year stint in the Peace Corp and were later asked to became a part of Wings of Hope, a non-profit humanitarian group which uses aircrafts to provide transportation to those living in remote and isolated areas requiring medical assistance.

Since 1994, the Reiffs have been providing hope to persons of all ages in the central America countries as Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and in the African country of Ghana.

Wings of Hope is located out of St. Louis, Mo. and has been in existence since 1962.

"The tears of a mother in the remote jungle are typically the same as a mother's tears in the asphalt jungle of an American city," as stated in the Wings of Hope's statement of purpose. "They need a way to access whatever health care is available and the guidance to advance those capabilities."

The Reiffs have spent six months at a time living in the remote villages where they make many friends. Each village is typically equipped with a small doctor's office but when additional care is needed, the pilots transport the patients to government hospitals. the hospitals do not compare to the standards of American hospitals by any means, but the care is free to the villagers who do not have money.

Each day for the Wings of Hope pilots is unpredictable.

"The idea is that we get up each morning, are dressed and fed and ready for any call," Annie said. Any day, any time.

The patients are brought to the airplane landing strips often carried, sometimes up to 10 miles down rough mountain paths, or brought in by handmade boats. Some leave and never make it back to the village.

The Reiffs travel together - always. "We are a two-some," Del said.

They have had people die on the plane ride to the hospital and they have even had a baby born on board. Many of the health issues that need looking at are broken bones, malaria and snake bites.

The plane maneuvering is much different than if they were landing or taking off at an airport here. Instead of 4,000-6,000 foot runway, they have only a runway of 1,000 feet - and it is crude, difficult to depict that it is even a runway, consisting of rock or gravel.

The couple doesn't stay in any ritzy quarters while in central America - they stay right in the village and deal with the same issues the native people do - how to utilize the small portions of water and electricity each day. The people, they said, are awesome and so grateful for what they have.

They enjoy going back to the villages where they have served; many people remember them and are happy to see them.

Many handmade treasures have been given to them by their friends and each piece is proudly displayed in the Reiff home.

When the couple is not busy taking people ot the hospitals, they have volunteered their time in the villages to be optometrists, helping with professionals who come out to fit persons with glasses, collected, in fact, by Lions Clubs.

Del, who grew up on a farm right outside of Fonda, has always had a fascination with airplanes. As a young boy, he enjoyed putting model airplanes together, and "decorated" his room with them.

He went off to college and earned his bachelor's degree, master's degree and also doctorate in psychology, teaching in universities in Colorado and Wisconsin.

While in his mid-20s, he participated in pilot's training, not letting his tall stature - 6'7" - interfere with it. "Being that tall isn't good for a pilot," he laughed, describing the small cockpits he has to slide into.

It was in 1982 that Annie came to the conclusion that she wanted to be behind the controls as well, and not always be the passenger. Flying is their favorite mode of transportation; they have two planes that they fly on a regular basis.

They began working for Wetherells, an excavation firm, out of Storm Lake shortly after Annie completed her training and worked for him for eight years, flying him or others in the company all over the United States.

"We never went into it to make money. We just wanted to break even. There were so many rewards - we got to see so many places," Del said.

"Pilots are peculiar," he went on. "they're mechanical and want to know what's going on in these beasts. They want everything running well. When we are (piloting) an airplane we are 100 percent in charge of what happens. It is all up to me." And that is exciting and is why pilots want to know everything they can about their planes.

"Flying is an encompassing thing. I never worry. I don't think it is blind ignorance but if you are a worrier, you're not going to be a pilot."

Del has gone on to teach budding pilots and he has become a certified plane mechanic and inspector, traveling to other countries to do inspections. He has conducted flight testing for pilots in Ecuador as well.

That mechanical side of Del is what convinced him to purchase a 1957 German Dornier airplane in disrepair. The beast is in his garage and someday, he hopes by next summer, he will have it flying. He has had the plane since 2001, seeing it for the first time while on a training trip in Guatemala. The 2,300-pound machine was disassembled and shipped to Texas. He was most surprised about the thousands of feet of wire that will eventually power the machine again.

This particular plane has quite a history. It was built in Munich, built for surveillance. It flew for 12 years in the German Air Force, served as an American CIA plane and was flown for 12-15 years in Israel. It was imported to the U.S. in 1982 where the then owner wished to register it with the FAA, but the FAA refused to do so. It is termed as an "experimental" plane, meaning it did not pass the rating.

"It's a big ol' horse," said Del, "it's not a fluffy thing."

Finding pieces for the plane are difficult unless you go to the German manufacturer or locate a wrecked plane to salvage parts.

Del was fortunate to locate one that had been downed in a 200 MPH wind storm and so now has many duplicate pieces.

There are only 14 Dorniers in the United States and many of the owners keep track of each other.

The Reiffs, parents of five children and eight grandchildren, aren't ready to give up flying, though Wings of Hope is switching gears to doing more domestic flying then international.

"We're more international," the couple shared. "We've been doing this for a long time; we love the adventure. We have always been volunteers. the rawness of the back country is incredible and these people are so neat. But we are tapering off. We've had a good run."

They have recently been offered a two-year stint in the Congo from Wings of Hope. They continue to go back and forth with their decision.

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