What’s Happening in the Wings of Hope Hangar?

Wings of Hope is a global humanitarian network of partners serving people in nine countries, but the heart and soul of the organization is its hangar at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Mo.

A quick walk through the Wings of Hope hangar reveals an exceptionally clean and bright space dotted with planes in various states of repair and a crew of licensed mechanics and volunteers making sure the aircraft are well maintained.

Priority No. 1: Maintaining the MAT Fleet

Steve Johnson, Wings of Hope’s director of maintenance, said most of the work focuses on keeping the three planes serving the organization’s Medical Relief & Air Transport (MAT) Program airworthy.

“Our number one priority is the MAT aircraft,” said Johnson.

The MAT fleet is three, twin-engine airplanes that Wings of Hope uses to provide free patient flights to hospitals and medical centers within about an 800-mile range of the Wings of Hope hangar.

“Sixty to 70 percent of our time is focused on maintaining the MAT airplanes,” Johnson said.

And these high-time aircraft require regular maintenance.

“Every time they fly — every time — we have to work on them when they come back. It’s minor stuff — oil leaks, brakes, tires, filters. They are 40-50-year-old aircraft that require constant maintenance.”

Plus, each airplane has two engines which adds to their maintenance needs.

“The second priority for Steve and his crew are the raffle planes — they bring in a lot of money,” said Mike Piccirilli, who manages aircraft sales and donations for Wings of Hope.

Wings of Hope raffles off two airplanes annually which generates about $800,000.

“The raffle planes are primarily donated,” said Piccirilli. “It’s not as much fixing them up as going through and taking care of squawks (minor maintenance issues) and avionics upgrades.”

If a raffle plane needs an engine overhaul, Piccirilli said the work is usually outsourced. Performing the raffle planes’ annual inspections requires an A&P/IA (airframe and powerplant/inspection authorization) mechanic, and the licensed mechanics at Wings of Hope are already stretched thin maintaining the MAT fleet.

Last on the list of priorities for the maintenance crew are aircraft that are donated for sale. Currently, Wings of Hope receives about eight to 10 donated aircraft every year. Most are not appropriate for use in the field so the maintenance crew will fix minor squawks before Piccirilli finds a buyer. The annual inspections for sales aircraft are outsourced.

“We might do some minor maintenance or cosmetic work but, overall, we don’t do a lot of maintenance on the sales aircraft,” Johnson said.

Help Wanted: Mechanics and Avionics Technicians

In the past, the maintenance team has worked on preparing airplanes for work in the field. Most recently, the crew worked on a Cessna 182 for over a year before sending it to Paraguay to support the Wings of Hope partner base there in 2020.

This type of work is increasingly difficult as Johnson, an A&P/IA mechanic, oversees a bare-bones staff of four paid mechanics (one of whom also works on avionics) and 12-14 volunteers.

“We need mechanics and avionics technicians,” he said.

One problem is the industrywide shortage of mechanics. Another is the skillset required to maintain the Wings of Hope fleet.

“The type of aircraft we work on — we’re a dying breed,” Johnson explained. “There are not a lot of mechanics who work on piston-powered aircraft or light aircraft. The majority of the younger mechanics coming up want to work on new turbine engines.”

Johnson explained that unlike with turbine engine aircraft, there are no computerized monitoring systems or diagnostic tests to help mechanics diagnose what’s wrong with a piston-powered airplane.

“The aircraft we work on require a skillset of understanding how an engine operates,” Johnson said. “You have to troubleshoot it because there’s no monitoring like you have on newer automobiles — any data you see, it’s after the fact.”

Volunteers Making a Difference

Johnson estimates that about 50 percent of the maintenance in the hangar is performed by volunteers. Most have a background in maintenance or engineering, and their skillsets vary. When a new volunteer joins the team, Johnson works to find them a job that fits.

“Once we figure out what their skillset is and what they like to do, we try to find those tasks that they enjoy and are capable of doing,” he said.

Whatever skills they bring to the hangar, volunteers are invaluable, Johnson said: “They free up the time for us to focus on what it is that needs to be done that requires a licensed mechanic.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows volunteers who are not licensed mechanics to work on aircraft as long as their work is supervised and approved by a licensed mechanic.

“That’s how our volunteers are able to work on aircraft without having a license,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the hangar volunteers “believe in what they’re doing — and they want to make a difference.”

“I can’t stress how impressed I am with someone giving up their time like these volunteers do,” he said. “There are guys who come in here regularly, just like they’re working a paid staff position. To be retired, to have time off, and to say, ‘you know what, I’m going to go in and go to work’ — I just respect that so much.”

A Personal Connection

That desire to make a difference also motivates Johnson, along with the work environment.

“This is a good place to work,” he said. “Our hangar is absolutely top notch. It’s a wonderful environment for aircraft maintenance.”

He praised the clean, bright, warm facilities, but Johnson said the most powerful motivation for him to come to work each day is personal.

“I have a daughter who was born with cerebral palsy, so I have a direct understanding of what it’s like to have a child with a disability. And I can relate to those parents who come here with a sick child.”

Johnson said he “can only imagine as a parent how comforting it must feel” to hear that Wings of Hope is able to transport their child to the care they need — for free.

“Free here means free,” he said. “When we say we can get your child to the hospital, it doesn’t matter how much money you have — we will get your child there.”

And providing that level of care and compassion — with no strings attached — strikes a chord with Johnson.

“I believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m here because I want to contribute. I want to make a difference.”

Wings of Hope is always looking for licensed mechanics, avionics technicians and volunteers. To explore paid and volunteer positions, visit the Volunteer & Employment Opportunities page.

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