HAMMOND -- One man is turning his love for aviation into a charitable cause.
Rusty Lavergne, alongside his wife Kelly, recently formed Flying Wings of Louisiana, a non-profit organization that will provide free air transportation to pediatric cancer patients living in the south.
The Lavergnes, who reside in the Watson area, established the organization last summer and were officially granted non-profit status last November. They hope to fly their first patient this year.
“We found something we love doing, and we wanted to do something good with it,” Rusty said after landing his plane at the Hammond Northshore Regional Airport on a windy Wednesday afternoon. “As soon as we get the okay from St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital], we’ll start.”
So far, Rusty is the only pilot for Flying Wings, and he has plenty of experience in the air.
As a Blackhawk pilot, Rusty flew across the country and abroad during eight years of service in the U.S. Army. In 1996, he was stationed in the 10th Mountain Division in upstate New York before finishing his last two years of service in Fort Polk, Louisiana. In between, he commanded an air traffic control company in Korea.
Rusty left the Army in 2002, but he never left the sky.
For the last 17 years, he’s worked as a helicopter pilot flying workers to and from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, working seven days on and seven days off.
Now, he’s hoping to use his off days to fly pediatric cancer patients and their families to and from their treatment at St. Jude — or anywhere else they need to fly.
“If anybody calls in Louisiana, Mississippi and east Texas, we’re gonna try to pick them up,” he said. “We’re not limiting it, but we had to start somewhere, so that’s why we wanted to start with pediatric cancer patients in Louisiana.”
To meet their needs, the Lavergnes have purchased a 1965 Piper Comanche — a four-passenger aircraft with a 260-horsepower engine that Rusty called the “ideal” plane for their mission.
It has a strong engine, he said, and it is spacious, faster and has retractable landing gear “so there’s less drag.” It’s also able to carry more weight, has a five-hour fuel range, and is capable of landing at smaller airports in areas such as Houma, Galliano, Patterson, and Abbeville.
“All those things together make this a wonderful platform for this mission,” he said.
Like anyone with experience can attest to, cancer eats away at the entire family, something Rusty and Kelly know all too well. Rusty said he lost his father to lung cancer, while Kelly’s mother battled breast cancer. She’s also lost a close cousin to the disease, he said.
It all triggered a desire to help those who face similar situations.
“We felt with cancer patients, there’s such a huge need there, so that’s why we focused on that,” he said. “When you deal with cancer, there are so many things to think about and consider, so hopefully this can be one less thing for families to have to think about.”
In addition to providing free airfare, Rusty hopes to provide a memorable experience. With Flying Wings, there will be “no check-ins, no TSA, no long lines, and no exposure to hundreds of people at big airports,” he said.
“We could be off in 20 minutes from the time I land until we’re in the air,” Rusty said. “And the great thing about this plane is we can go into local areas so they don’t have to go to large airports.
“We can eliminate a six-hour drive or plane ride and turn it into, hopefully, a two-hour fun flight.”
To help grow their mission, Rusty and Kelly are selling raffle tickets for a fundraiser in conjunction with Bass Pro Shops. The $25 tickets can be purchased by visiting www.flyingwingsoflouisiana.org, and buyers will have the chance to win one of four prizes — including a brand-new, 19-foot TS500 Tahoe valued at $30,000.
The raffle will be held at Bass Pro on June 30.
“One hundred percent goes toward transporting the children,” he said. “We can get this off the ground with your help.”