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Sechelt pilot takes off on cross-country fundraising expedition

Steve Drinkwater is flying across Canada to raise support — and hopefully $1 million — for Hope Air, a program that transports patients from rural areas to medical care and back 

As Steve Drinkwater flies from Victoria to St. John’s, NL, he will be one of the first volunteer pilots to complete a cross-country fundraising expedition for Hope Air. 

This year, the organization hopes to raise $1 million for the program, Drinkwater told Coast Reporter on June 7, the second day of the Give Hope Wings campaign. 

On June 6, Drinkwater started his expedition at the Sechelt Airport, first travelling to Victoria to meet up with other volunteer pilots before they turned their flight path east. There are several stages to their journey: from B.C. to Toronto to Halifax to St. John’s before landing in Montreal for the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) 2022 convention. The whole expedition will take three weeks.

Hope Air helps transport Canadians to non-emergency medical appointments with the help of donated seats on commercial flights and volunteer pilots who own private planes. An additional accommodations program helps support overnight stays, and Hope Air is currently trialing two new programs to support transportation to and from airports and meals during overnight stays. Anyone with a provincial health plan-approved medical appointment, difficulty travelling to that appointment, and demonstration of financial needs, can use Hope Air’s service.

“If you live in a part of this country where there isn't specialized care directly in your community, and where you need to travel to access it, Hope Air exists to help get you to that care,” chief development officer Jon Collins said. 

While there were no travel requests in 2021 from the Sunshine Coast community, Collins said that may be related to awareness of the program, but the limited options for transportation and difficulty in accessing care will be relatable. Drinkwater said his plane is too small to accommodate a patient for transport, but the BC Ferries’s Travel Assistance Program and volunteer drivers can help fill that need locally. 

Since Nov. 1986, more than 162,000 travel arrangements have been made in Canada through Hope Air. The Volunteer Pilot Program launched in 1999 to connect with travellers who live far away from commercial airports. Today, there are 52 active volunteer pilots across the country, six of whom are based in B.C. British Columbia makes up almost half of the program’s annual travel volume. 

“There's demonstrated need,” Collins says. “There are many communities in British Columbia that are more remote or away from a city centre. And in a lot of those cities, even when there's a really strong primary health care service, they often lack specialized care.”

Drinkwater points out that many Canadians don’t realize travelling to a medical appointment is not covered by any of the provincial health care systems, and the cost can be prohibitive. If they can't afford to go, some rural residents won't get necessary diagnosis and treatments, especially after the Greyhound bus service pulled out of B.C.

Give Hope Wings was started by Dave McElroy in 2018. The first expedition raised around $500,000 by circumnavigating South America. The next year, Drinkwater joined the Arctic expedition flying from Inuvik to Alaska, raising $250,000 in the process. Last year, the expedition earned $420,000 between Boundary Bay and Hudson Bay. 

“I love aviation and a flying adventure is great, but to do this sort of thing, knowing that it's going to a great cause,is what really motivates me,”  says Drinkwater (who is also the owner and publisher of Canadian Aviator Magazine). Along the way, he added, the pilots usually hear from Hope Air travellers who have used the service, and “how it, in some cases, saved their lives.”

“It’s very emotion-provoking,” Drinkwater said. 

Pilots or passengers interested in learning more, can find information at www.hopeair.ca or by calling 1-877-346-HOPE (4673). Donations can be made to https://support.hopeair.ca

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