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November 7, 2006 > Hope Flight Foundation needs wings

Hope Flight Foundation needs wings

by Steve Warga

Acting on a whim when he was 18, Douglas Harding went to the local airport in Orange County, California and bought a test flight with an instructor aboard a Cessna 150 airplane. They didn’t quite reach heaven that day, but the match was made all the same and it’s still going strong nearly three decades later. “The thing I love most about flying is the viewpoint,” Harding says.

His bright blue eyes flashing, he describes the perspective, “From up there, you see things like cars moving along, so small, yet filled with people going about their business. My problems just don’t seem so important then. I really like seeing beyond the next 100 feet.”

Harding also enjoys the challenge of operating flying machines well, even in difficult situations like cross-wind landings. Perhaps that’s why he eventually found his way to Livermore Municipal Airport working as the Chief Flight Instructor for Korean Air, teaching other pilots how to fly commercial aircraft. Thirteen years of that work was enough, though, so he elected to stay behind when the company relocated to Phoenix, Ariz. to escape California’s oppressive business taxes and bureaucracies. Leaving the demands of a high pressure, nine-to-five job allowed Harding the chance to begin building another dream, one he hopes will eventually benefit thousands of children, adults and their families facing severe medical challenges.

A little over a year ago, Hope Flight Foundation, a non-profit corporation, was established with Harding as founder and president, along with a board of directors composed of like-minded aviation buffs. Their mission is two-fold. First, they wish to provide air transport to critically ill children or adults who lack the resources to pay for such transport, and who may also lack access to expanded medical facilities due to living in more remote areas of California, Nevada and Oregon. Then, Hope Flight plans to provide air transport during the summer months to and from the numerous healthcare camps operating in mountain and coastal regions. If they can fit in some flights for Make-a-Wish Foundation kids, they’ll do that too. Hope Flight Foundation will do all this free of charge for qualified applicants, subject to certain other criteria.

With the organization in place, and basic start-up costs covered, Hope Flight Foundation needs its wings. The big hurdle now is that of raising about half a million dollars for a Cessna 421 aircraft. After much research and experience with this model, Harding has decided it’s the best match for Hope Flight’s operations. This twin-engine plane can seat up to six passengers and can cover its 600 mile operating radius in less than three hours. A ground vehicle would require ten or more to go that same distance. Shorter transit times mean less discomfort for the patients, but it goes further than just comfort. There will be times when the travel time differential will literally mean life or death.

Cabin pressurization is also critical, Harding points out. “With pressurization, we can fly high enough to clear the sort of weather that grounds other planes. This means we’ll be available far more often. Also, the 421 has deicing capabilities. That’s another flying hazard that keeps many planes and helicopters on the ground during inclement weather conditions.”

Harding’s concept is surprisingly unique. In its early development, he failed to find any other operation similar to what he envisioned. He did come across Angel Flight, Inc., a loosely-knit organization of private airplane owners around the country who make themselves and their craft available on a periodic basis. It’s a commendable resource, but not as comprehensive or immediately responsive as Hope Flight projects.

Then, only a few months ago, Harding discovered “Children’s Flight of Hope” in North Carolina, which seems to be doing precisely what he wants Hope Flight Foundation to do. But they’re the only ones he’s found.

With this encouragement, he’s pushing now to secure funding for the plane. Hope Flight will also need about $250,000 per year in operating costs to keep the plane maintained and flying. He’ll do the piloting in most instances, and he hopes to draw a modest salary at some point, but Hope Flight Foundation is entirely a labor of love for the foreseeable future. Harding pays his own bills by working as a contract flight instructor with California Airways at Hayward Executive Airport. This is also where he plans to base Hope Flight’s aircraft and operations.

Harding fondly recalls earning his Private Pilot’s license before his nineteenth birthday and how he’d load two or thee buddies in a four-seat plane and fly from his base in Orange County to places like Catalina Island and Big Bear resort. “It was a fun time in my life. We’d jump in a plane with a picnic lunch and fly somewhere for the day. It’s really pretty amazing when you think about it. I was only 18, 19 years old! I’ve always thought it was kind of an ‘Only in America’ story.”

A kid having fun, doing what he loved, turned that love into a career. Now he wants to give something back to the good citizens of this land of opportunity. That too is a classic American tale, one well worth telling and knowing. Some pilots speak of “getting away from it all” in their aircraft. Hope Flight Foundation’s founder, Douglas Harding, finds a different perspective in the skies. Up there, it’s people and possibilities he see stretching all the way to far horizons.

To learn more about Hope Flight Foundation and to learn how to donate, call Douglas Harding at (510) 427-3956; or visit

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