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Pilots criss-crossing Western Canada to raise money for charity touch down in Thompson

Thompson Airport saw a squadron of planes land over a short timeframe Aug. 26 as one of the pit stops in the Give Hope Wings fundraising expedition across Western Canada.
Give Hope Wings expedition chief pilot Dave McElroy shortly after landing at Thompson Airport Aug. 2
Give Hope Wings expedition chief pilot Dave McElroy shortly after landing at Thompson Airport Aug. 26 following the second leg of the flying fundraiser across Western Canada for Hope Air.

Thompson Airport saw a squadron of planes land over a short timeframe Aug. 26 as one of the pit stops in the Give Hope Wings fundraising expedition across Western Canada.

Fifteen pilots in small planes touched down at the end of the second leg of the province-hopping expedition, which began in Drumheller, Alberta and then stopped in Yorkton, Saskatchewan before heading northeast to Thompson.

The pilots are raising money for and awareness of Hope Air, a charity that provides free travel and accommodations to Canadians in need who have to travel long distances for medical care.

For chief pilot Dave McElroy, it was the third such expedition over the past few years. In 2018, he and two other pilots circumnavigated South America. The following year, they travelled though B.C., Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska. The original plan for this year had been to start in Victoria, B.C. in early June and fly all the way across Canada in instalments, but the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires led to that being shortened to Western Canada only.

A retired businessman, McElroy says he and the other two pilots who participated in the first expedition wanted to fly for a cause and were attracted to Hope Air because 85 per cent of the money raised goes directly to providing flights and accommodations for recipients.

“I like charities that collect money and distribute it really well and that’s Hope Air,” he said. “They do great work from coast to coast. People that have to get to urban centres … to get to health care, a free flight for people that can’t afford it is a really big deal.”

Another pilot taking part in this year’s Give Hope Wings was Lee Arsenault, who took up flying in 2008 when he retired and owns two planes. 

“We bought a second plane, which was a four-seater. At that time we started thinking about what could we do, what charity could we get involved with that we could use our plane?” he said. “We heard about Hope Air and looked into it so I started flying for Hope Air five years ago.”

As a volunteer pilot based in Ontario, Arsenault picks up people from remote places in the province’s north to take them to cities like Toronto, London or Ottawa.

“It’s not emergencies, it’s just scheduled appointments, things that they would find very difficult to get to because they live so far away,” says his wife Marilyn Staig, who helped organize the ground logistics for this summer’s fundraiser. 

Most of the flights provided by Hope Air are on commercial airlines but about 10 per cent are provided by volunteer pilots like Arsenault in their own planes, Staig says.

“As a charity, my husband and I enjoy it because you actually meet the people,” she says. “It’s not like you’re just giving money to some anonymous charity.”

The pilots left Thompson for Churchill Aug. 27, then headed back west, with stops scheduled for Flin Flon, Saskatoon, Red Deer and Golden, B.C. before wrapping the expedition up in Nelson, B.C.

Previous Give Hope Wings expeditions raised $900,000, which paid for 3,600 travel flights. The goal for this year’s expedition is to raise $400,000, enough for 1,600 flights.

To learn more about Hope Air, visit hopeair.ca.