To the Heights and Back Again

August 28, 2009 11:08 am Comments Off on To the Heights and Back Again

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The first time I heard about Dan Wohlers was when I inquired about the ice chest full of snow sitting in front of the church school in Port Charlotte, Florida.

“Oh, yes,” a teacher assured me, “it is snow. This guy in our church flies an air ambulance, and he brought the snow from somewhere up north for our kids to ploy with. Some have never even seen snow before. He also brings colorful fall leaves for the kids to see. Don’s always doing something neat like that.”

His ambulance flights to many parts of the globe made many science projects possible for those kids. They evaluated soil samples that he ferried from many places in the United States, as well as from Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and other countries. in recent years, Dan regularly presented science-based worships to the kids at Port Charlotte Adventist School and told children stories in Sabbath School and church.

And now, after a few years’ hiatus, Dan can once again be seen in the church hallway carrying an unusual insect in a cage to a children’s Sabbath School class or carrying one of his numerous musical instruments to meet an appointment for a song service. Flying has been his first passion, but he also has a love of nature, music, and computers.

As a young man, Dan attended Adelphian Academy in Holly, Michigan, where his dad, Dorison Wohlers, ran the wood products shop. His mom, Rosemary, lived on the original two acres the family purchased in the ’40s until her death in 2009. Dan studied for two years at Andrews University. While there, he was attracted to planes and the sky like an eagle is attracted to high perches and air currents.

Low-budget Flying

Dan likes heights—the higher the better—often saying that he wouldn’t hesitate to climb a high tower and change a light bulb. However, since flying lessons were not in his budget when he attended Andrews University, he started skydiving. His wife, Sue, says, “He could only afford to fly one way—up.” So it’s no surprise that he has recorded 260 skydives in his logbook.

Dan’s next educational step was taken at Kettering College of Medical Arts, where he graduated in 1974 with an associate degree in respiratory therapy. After graduation, he stayed on to work in the department. By that time, Dan was piloting his own 1949 two-seat Aeronca Champ. Since then, he has owned a Cessna four-seat 172 and a Piper PA-11.

danandsueThere were no thoughts of romance that day at Kettering when Dan gave a lecture on pulmonary functions to a group of RNs from Andrews University. However, one of the other instructors, also a pilot, learned that one of those nurses, Sue, also flew planes. That very day, Dan invited Sue to help shuffle airplanes for someone who needed a plane ride to Indianapolis. He must have been impressed with her and her ability, because Dan asked her for a date the next day. He offered to let her fly his plane because she had never flown a taildragger before. Now, more than thirty years later, he still brags about the way she landed that plane.

Sue says, “Before we were married, one of his family members commented, ‘If he lets you fly his airplane, he must be in love.'” Dan Wohlers and Sue Myer were married in 1977.

Why an Air Ambulance?

Dan’s father was afflicted with asthma, and it left a lasting impression on the boy. Many times he came home from school and found Dad’s chair empty. He recalls the haunting feeling of the oxygen tank sitting next to the empty chair because “Dad had been rushed to the emergency room, yet again!” So, it’s no surprise that Dan’s first medical flight was to pick up his dad in Michigan and take him to Kettering for treatment. On his first paid air ambulance trip, Dan remembers, the only equipment on board was a bedpan and an oxygen tank. The most recent jet he flew was equipped with an Advanced Cardiac Life Support system.

Always a Way Home

In 1979, a recruiter came from the Adventist hospital in Punta Gorda, Florida, to offer Dan a position in the respiratory therapy department. A nursing job was available for Sue, as well. But the recruiter could only pay for one airline ticket. Not worrying about how they would get back home, Dan and Sue chose the option of two one-way tickets to Florida over one round-trip ticket, so they could both look over the job opportunities.

After they accepted the positions, the next step was to get home and start packing. But how? They would fly, of course. Learning of a repossessed skydiving plane that needed to be returned to Ohio, they made the necessary arrangements and flew it home.

danairtrekRewarding…

Dan’s dual career as respiratory therapist and pilot has led him through many adventures, although he says that one does not have to be a medic to pilot an air ambulance. Dan began as a medic and then became copilot/ medic. In 1995, he became the captain of Air Trek, Inc.’s corporate jet, based at the Punta Gorda airport. Before he worked full time for Air Trek, he practiced his medical specialty at a local hospital, sometimes working a night shift at the hospital and flying during the day.

…Yet Frustrating

Among his most frustrating flying experiences was a trip to Sr. Croix to pick up a patient with a fractured skull. Dan had to refuel twice along the way. And because the airport in St. Croix closed before he could leave, Dan had to spend a night in Puerto Rico before continuing to St. Croix. A ground ambulance picked up the patient, but it stalled twice before making it back to Dan’s plane.

A worse experience occurred when the nose gear collapsed on a plane he was flying in Guatemala, which caused the plane to slide down the runway. He tried in vain to steer it off the runway and out of the way, so the airport wouldn’t have to be closed. The patient he was hauling was a bit confused and laughed through the whole experience. Dan went home under other power, but later had to return to Guatemala, rebuild the plane, and fly it back to Florida.

Although he has seen the horrors of auto accidents, he says the most horrific incident he logged in his over 10,000 hours of flying came when he picked up a soldier at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The soldier had been burned by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Iraq. His face was grotesquely unidentifiable from burns, and he was unconscious.

“To recognize that man’s inhumanity to man had caused this to happen to another person made me physically sick,” Dan says.

As much as he prized his career of helping people out of tough situations, he reveals that the most unfulfilling aspect of his job was “seldom knowing how the situations ended and how his passengers eventually fared.”

Because Air Trek mostly flies scheduled flights for people in stable medical conditions, Dan was seldom involved in organ transplant situations.

“The company is in the business of reuniting families,” he says.

Many times the patients are unstable, but the family wants to get the loved one home, no matter what. In these cases, transfers are not paid for by insurance.

“Family members usually are not rich and will sometimes pool their credit cards to pay for the transportation.”

He periodically flew a thirteen-year-old girl to San Antonio, Texas, for specialized medical care. He became acquainted with her and her family, as he flew her once a year for most of her life. Dan also tells about a doctor in Houston who operates on “inoperable” aneurisms. He has flown patients from all three of the local hospitals to be cared for by this specialist.

danflightlogsReady in an Instant

After beginning full-time work with Air Trek, interrupted family life was the norm as Dan and Sue raised their two children, John and Sarah; family schedules often were not played out. He could no longer accept church positions, because he never knew when he would be going or coming. On the bright side, there were unusual fun times for the family. Early in the air ambulance experience, Sue flew a few trips as the medic. She smiles as she tells about taking Sarah on a “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” After completing their mission, Sue, Dan, and Sarah ate lunch at the China Blossom restaurant in Florence, Massachusetts, and then flew home to Punta Gorda.

Some of Dan’s proud memories involve students he taught to fly:

  • “The first student I soloed named his child after me. I’ll never forget that flight. I was more nervous than he was. After you earn your flight instructor’s certificate, you think you know everything about flying until you have your first student.”
  • “I remember one tiny little lady I taught. A few years later, she sent me a photo of her standing by the big commercial jet she pilots. She thanked me and said it was because of me that she was where she was in her career.”
  • “Another one of my students is a private pilot for a celebrity”

A New Challenge

In 2003, Dan was offered a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the Federal Aviation Administration. It would be a Monday through Friday, 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. schedule with all federal holidays off so they could live a regular life. He quit his job with Air Trek, Sue quit her job at the hospital, and they moved to Albuquerque.

However, their regular life soon became more irregular than the Wohlers had ever dreamed it could, would, or should be. A year or so into the job, Dan was required to take a flying test. His hands shook so badly he failed the test. With their medical backgrounds, it didn’t take much research for the couple to realize that Dan had Parkinson’s disease. Their house in Punta Gorda had yet to sell, so they moved right back into the home they had built in 1986.

Once back in Charlotte County, Dan went to his former family physician and stated, “I have Parkinson’s.” In retrospect, he and Sue acknowledge that his symptoms, including his weakened voice, had begun several months before his failed flying test in Albuquerque. His disease progressed quickly, making his hands shake so badly that he had a hard time eating. At mealtimes, he often would quit eating because he got tired of fighting with the food. Before long, he couldn’t even button the buttons on his shirt.

“One night,” Sue says, “when we were eating spaghetti for dinner, Dan was having such a hard time that we both just sat there and cried”

The numerous medicines and combinations of medicines didn’t work for him. During this period of time, he worked some in the Air Trek office, but he never flew again. But that is not the end of the story of this man who likes to fly with the eagles. In June 2007, his first deep brain stimulator was implanted. It worked so well that in January 2008, another one was implanted to control the shaking on the other side.

And now he takes no medication! He takes nothing for Parkinson’s and nothing for blood pressure. He can do any physical activity he chooses to do, including eleven-hour stints of yard work. Even though his voice is weak and he has to think about what he wants to say, he is a very thankful man—and shares his experience with complete strangers. Recently, he saw a man in a restaurant whose hands were shaking so badly he had difficulty controlling his fork. I’ve been there, done that, Dan mused as he unashamedly went to the man and told him about his own successful surgery.

Dan Wohlers smiled contentedly when he told me of two acquaintances who had already undergone the implant surgery because of his encouragement.

“It may not be the answer for everyone,” he says, “but it worked for me. It’s at least a treatment that should be considered for anyone with serious Parkinson’s.” Sue says that he spreads the good news about this treatment and is a real ambassador for his doctor.

When the Wohlers saw that the second stimulator was working well, they left subtropical Southwest Florida and went to Alaska for a vacation. Of course, Dan had been to Alaska many times. However, Sue says that touching down in airports doesn’t really count as visiting countries. He has flown as far east as Turkey, as far south as the tip of South America, as far north as Greenland, and as far west as Seattle.

Man on a Mission

When asked what her husband’s strongest characteristic is, Sue responded without thinking, “Persistence.” She told of all the studying he had to do to earn his various pilot certificates and ratings, which include: multi-engine land; airline transport; single-engine land, commercial; glider, private; and flight instructor, single and multi-engine, instrument. A less persistent person would also find difficulty in resuming a new kind of normal life after such a bewildering and debilitating diagnosis. But his character traits include cheerfulness and optimism.

The Wohlers were active in Pathfinders for many years. Part of the Pathfinder Pledge is “To keep a song in my heart.” A deeper understanding of that phrase has come to Dan and Sue only recently.

“I often wake up in the morning,” Dan says, “thinking about one of my old favorite hymns. And that song will then play through my mind all day long.”

What about today and tomorrow for Dan Wohlers?

“If I never fly again, I’ll still have my memories.”

dansadviceDan has spent mega hours working in their expansive yard, and days working at his daughter’s home. Because of his weakened voice, he can’t perform many of the jobs he would otherwise qualify for. “If I can’t find a paid job, I’ll volunteer at our church’s Community Service Center. I have to keep busy”

From where did Dan, age 56, gather his strength during his lifetime, and especially during the last few years? He quickly refers to the Serenity Prayer printed on a plaque that hung in his father’s office when Dan was growing up. Then he points to an engraving of the Bible text that has sustained him since he first took wings: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

Dan has flown with eagles; he has attained great heights. After being grounded for a while, his strength was miraculously renewed. He is running, not walking, and he certainly is not fainthearted.

Fly Dan, fly!

Dan’s Advice to Travelers With all this experience of reuniting families and rescuing people from afar, Dan’s advice for travelers is to buy travel insurance. An air evacuation from Europe or other distant places on the map can cost more than a down payment on a sizable house.


Barbara Huff and her husband, Lee, retired in 2000 in Punta Gorda, Florida, and are both active in the Port Charlotte Seventh-day Adventist Church. They raise goats just for fun, and love to show off the kids to anyone willing to snuggle one. Barbara enjoys photography, writing, birding, grandkids, and “granddogs.” She also loves to ride her recumbent tricycle in her rural neighborhood.