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  • Writer's pictureJeff Schober

5000 flights and counting…

'Wings Flights of Hope' founders Joe and Diane DeMarco serve others by flying patients for medical appointments

February 11, 2020: Joe DeMarco inspects his plane before flying a patient to an out-of-town appointment. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

As the co-founder and lead pilot for Wings Flights of Hope Inc., Joe DeMarco has flown 5000 patients to and from hospitals and doctor visits across the country since 2004. Despite the passing years, he remembers nearly every passenger by name, easily reciting their backstory.

“This is little Calvin,” DeMarco said, scrolling through photos on his iPad. “He was born with organs outside his body. We needed to get him to Boston for medical attention there. He would have died if he stayed in Buffalo.”

A few swipes later, DeMarco recounts another passenger who required attention in Massachusetts.

“Tim was a Tonawanda policeman, 39 at the time, and he needed a new heart. His wife contacted us. He was going to get a transplant in Boston, but for a year he got to live at home. I was running him back and forth. Wings was a heartbeat away.”

With each new photo, more names tumble forth: Mandy, Luke, Erin, Candy, Lynn. Each had their own unique medical challenge, and DeMarco had a stake in their stories.

Even Jim Kelly few with Wings when the Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills quarterback needed a germ-free environment for an out-of-town medical procedure. That flight garnered public attention, helping to raise awareness of their organization.

DeMarco’s wife, Diane, coordinates the pilots’ schedules and manages the office on California Road in Orchard Park, in the shadow of New Era Field. Wings Flights of Hope does not charge its passengers, relying on donations and fundraisers to cover costs.

“Obviously, Jim Kelly can afford a flight,” DeMarco said. “We don’t fly people because they don’t have the means. It’s one of our biggest misconceptions. Most of the time, it’s that they can’t be around other people. If you have a compromised immune system and you’re going for surgery, do you want to get on a commercial plane and be exposed to germs or a bug?”

From the Ground to the Air

After graduating from West Seneca West High School in 1978, DeMarco, 59, began flying an ultra light airplane. But his masonry business soon consumed his free time. He helped to build Target stores across the state and the Southtowns YMCA on Southwestern Boulevard in West Seneca. In 2004, he purchased a plane with a friend, committed to flying more regularly.

“When you own a plane, you want to fly,” he explained. “A lot of pilots just fly in circles.”

That same year, he tagged along with a fellow pilot, Lackawanna dentist Dr. Kevin D’Angelo, who flew a boy to a medical appointment. DeMarco didn’t fully understand their mission at the time.

“I had no idea that the kid was sick,” DeMarco said. “When we landed, his mother and sister were crying, thanking us, saying they couldn’t take public transportation. I was hooked after that. I started doing more flights, and eventually it took over my life.”

On the snowy night of December 3, 2005, DeMarco’s focus shifted from construction to philanthropy. He was returning from a business trip to Montreal, where he had been part of a group that toured a heavy equipment factory and watched a Buffalo Sabres game.

“On the bus home, there was an open bar, and they had every drink that I loved. They were trying to make customers happy. It was snowing out, and everybody was partying and getting loud, but I sat by myself in the front of the bus. Don’t ask me why other than divine intervention.”

As the bus approached Buffalo, D’Angelo phoned and asked if DeMarco could make an emergency flight for a transplant patient. D’Angelo would normally do it himself, but his plane was being serviced.

“When we pulled in, somebody drove me to Prior Aviation,” DeMarco said. “The snow was flying, and everybody who needed to be on that plane walked in from different directions at the same time. I took a seven-year-old to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and when I got home, it was a natural high. I felt great.”

At their Orchard Park office, Diane and Joe DeMarco recall people "Wings Flights of Hope" has aided over the years. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

The next morning, DeMarco mused about events from the night before. Knowing he cannot fly within eight hours of consuming alcohol, he wondered why he hadn’t been drinking with everyone else on the bus, as he normally would have. His wife reminded him that December 3 was his late sister’s birthday. Jeanne DeMarco Davis died from cancer in 1989.

“When she said that, I got goosebumps and chills,” DeMarco said. “I even cried. I felt then like this was out of my hands. That’s when I stopped working. I had done three monster (masonry) jobs that year in Utica, Ithaca, and West Seneca. I made a lot of money but my nerves were shot and I was a mess mentally.”

DeMarco realized there was more to life than his masonry business. He believed he was being called to help others. With his wife’s support, they adjusted their priorities, phased out the business, and dedicated themselves to Wings.

“That day changed my life,” he said. “How many wives would let their husbands stop working to follow their passion? My wife is one in a million.”

While Joe is flying, Diane is working hard on the ground.

“As the co-founder of Wings, I have to have a lot of patience,” said Diane, who coordinates details that allows pilots to fly. She is responsible for taking calls, scheduling with doctors and airports, and being sure paperwork is completed according to regulations. She also oversees fundraising events.

“I share my husband’s time with a lot people, and it’s 24/7,” she said. “It isn’t glamorous. We can get calls in the middle of the night. People need help, so in the long run, it’s worth it. I told Joe, I’ll never ask you to give up something you love. He’s a professional volunteer.”

DeMarco hasn’t looked back after stepping away from a lucrative career.

“We made sacrifices, but the rewards you get…” he said, letting the sentence trail off. “There are ways to get paid besides money.”

In the Air

Today, Calvin Courtney is a healthy 9-year-old, but in 2011, when he was an infant with organs outside his body, navigating his medical issues was a full-time challenge for his parents, Christopher and Sarah.

“Calvin had been in the hospital for eight months and there was no end in sight,” Sarah recalled. “I started calling different hospitals and got in contact with Boston Children’s Hospital. They said if you can fly out here next week we can look at him and decide whether to do surgery. I started looking online and came across the website for Wings.”

Calvin Courtney and his mother, Sarah. Photo courtesy of Sarah Courtney

Diane DeMarco answered their call. When she spoke with the Courtney family, she requested that they meet. There was concern because Wings had never flown anyone on life support before. During the flight, someone would need to monitor Calvin’s tracheotomy, ventilator, and oxygen tank. But Diane understood that Calvin’s life depended on him getting to Boston, so she and her husband wanted to try.

The Courtneys immediately drove from their West Seneca home to Orchard Park to meet Diane and Joe. A flight was arranged for the following day.

“We were planning to go on vacation,” DeMarco said. “I got a text from my wife that said she had already changed my reservation.”

“I was very nervous,” Sarah recalled when she boarded the small plane at Prior Aviation. “It was a lot of emotions. We were flying to a new place in a small plane and you’re finding out whether this doctor who you’ve never met before is going to be able to help you and take care of your child.”

DeMarco, however, eased their nerves. Recognizing that his passengers were on edge, he talked calmly with them and explained what he was doing. He also played music in the plane, which he does regularly. Often he encourages singalongs.

“Joe was calm and welcoming,” Sarah said. “He told us that we were going to wear headphones and talk through them. Anytime I was getting nervous, he asked if I was okay. There were a couple times I said I don’t know if I can do this.”

“It’s just us in the plane,” DeMarco assured her. “It’s a beautiful clear day. We’re just out for a joyride.”

Calvin remained in Boston for a week, and Wings returned to fly them home.

“Joe has flown us multiple times, in and out for appointments,” Sarah said. “He’s always willing to help. Calvin calls him ‘Uncle Joe.’”

“Just call my pilot”

Heather and Glen Maeding of Allentown, Pennsylvania, first encountered Wings in 2010, when their son Luke was waiting for a double lung transplant. Commercial medical flights charged more than $30,000. Some organizations wouldn’t even agree to undertake a transplant flight because the timing is unpredictable.

“I called Wings and talked to Diane, and she told us not to worry, that they’d take care of it,” Heather said. “When the time came, it was the biggest day of our lives, and I didn’t know these people. With a lung transplant, you have six hours to get there. I was 34 weeks pregnant with my daughter, and I’m getting in a small plane with someone I’ve never met before. But Luke just fell in love with Joe.”

A life is considered well-lived if one can be of service to another. Many people have a story or two to can share. Joe and Diane DeMarco have thousands. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

In the ensuing decade, the Maedings have relied on Wings for transportation to and from appointments often enough that Luke refers to DeMarco as “my pilot.”

“Just call my pilot; he’ll pick me up,” Heather recounted her son telling a doctor. She laughed at the memory. “People look at him like he’s crazy, but Luke really does have his own pilot.”

During their many flights together, the family has come to appreciate DeMarco.

“Joe’s story is remarkable,” Heather said. “Here’s a successful man who was in the prime of his career and doing well financially. He decided to turn away from all that and change people’s lives. He deals with someone in the midst of the worst time in their life. The family is suffering through catastrophic illness. To have him come and pick you up, it’s almost like a ministry to him. His compassion and empathy are amazing.”

Now 18, Luke has been waiting for an intestine transplant since last August. It finally happened in May. Early indications are that he is recovering well, according to DeMarco.

“Luke is older now and understands more of what’s going on.” Heather reflected. “Wings has been an integral part of Luke’s life. It’s why he’s still here with us today. Joe has been key.”

Volunteers Needed

“I’d like for Wings to be a household name,” DeMarco said. “But people still don’t know about us. We advertise in newspapers and on TV and radio. Everybody’s heard of Mercy Flight, but people get us mixed up. They have helicopters with paramedics. They’re doing more accident scenes. We’re not geared for that. Most of our flights are pre-planned.”

Often hospitals refer patients to Wings Flights of Hope, explaining their services. Wings is part of a national organization, the Air Care Alliance, which helps transport people to and from faraway medical appointments.

“We’re the only organization in the country that’s all volunteer, and I’m real proud of that,” DeMarco said. “I have about 20 pilots, but could always use more. We’re blessed to be in a community that’s giving. I go to national conventions, and people are amazed that we are so successful using only volunteers. I say, ‘Hey, that’s Buffalo.’”

The process of requesting a flight is simple. Wings needs to confirm the medical appointment and be furnished with a doctor’s release that a patient is permitted to fly. Once they know the appointment date, Wings can schedule the flight time and decide whether a pilot should wait for a return trip that day, or plan the return trip for the next day or beyond.

Joe DeMarco with Elisha Benner, of Portland, N.Y., a double lung transplant patient en route to a follow-up visit in New York City. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“Wings does about 500 flights annually,” DeMarco said. “The most I’ve ever done personally is 383. I average about 300. I fly more in a week than most people fly in a year.”

Covid has grounded Wings for now. DeMarco’s last flight was in March. Although restrictions prevent him from flying, he is eager to return to his passion, concerned that people should have access to out-of-town medical care.

Between rules for non-profit organizations and the Federal Aviation Administration requirements, Wings is not allowed to accept payment from passengers. They do, however, accept private donations, often from service and religious groups. An annual summer fundraiser supports Wings for part of the year. (Because of Covid, the 2020 date has been postponed. When a new date is scheduled, it will be announced on the Wings’ website, linked at the bottom of this story.) In February, they hosted a formal dinner, dance, and silent auction at Statler City to raise money.

Calvin’s family moved to Virginia in 2019, but the Courtneys — and many others who have taken flights on Wings — make it a point to return and participate in fundraisers.

“We make sure we’re there to support Wings for the benefit in the summer,” Sarah said.

Moving stories are shared at the event.

“We brought a woman home on a compassion flight, and her husband told the story at last year’s fundraiser,” DeMarco said. “Lynn had been fighting cancer for five years in Florida and ended up at a cancer center in Tampa. Her doctor didn’t want her going anywhere, but her husband wanted her home so she could pass there. We flew her here and she got to see her daughter get married. It was beautiful. She passed a few weeks later. Her husband got up and told how none of that would have happened if it wasn’t for Wings.”

“I think the bulk of their fundraising comes from everyday people giving smaller donations,” Heather Maeding said. “The people who donate are incredible because they allow Wings to keep going When you have a lot of people, a little from each person can make a huge impact.”

A Big Heart

People ask DeMarco if he gets sad or depressed because he deals with patients clinging to life, often encountering families under stress.

“Thank God there are more happy stories than sad ones,” he explained. “There are stories where people get better. Even in cases where people pass, they’re so happy that they’re getting the best chance to survive. Loved ones call me years after to say thanks. We have a box of thank you cards in the office. If you want to cry, take a look at those.”

Ten years ago, DeMarco’s mother was having open-heart surgery. While he lingered in the hospital waiting room, his phone rang, but DeMarco didn’t accept the call. When his office phoned a few minutes later, however, he answered. DeMarco was asked to fly a man to Pennsylvania for a double lung transplant — but they needed to leave immediately.

So he left his mother after being assured things were under control.

“It was a hard thing to do, but nobody else could take this guy,” DeMarco shrugged.

The patient appreciated what DeMarco had done. When they landed in Pittsburgh, he had encouraging words for the pilot.

“If your mother’s heart is anything like yours,” he said, “she’s going to be fine.”

For fundraising information, visit

© 2020 by Jeff Schober

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