Savoy woman who founded LifeLine Pilots still flying high

Savoy woman who founded LifeLine Pilots still flying high

SAVOY — A Savoy octogenarian who took up flying as a hobby at age 48 continues to be honored for launching a volunteer pilots organization that has served as a model for dozens around the country.

Even though she hasn't been behind the yoke in 15 years, Wanda Whitsitt, 87, is still raking in awards for organizing LifeLine pilots, a group of volunteer private pilots who fly people for free to medical treatment in their own planes.

Started locally in 1981 by Whitsitt, LifeLine Pilots is believed to be the oldest organization of its kind in the country. It has flown more than 8,000 missions over 5 million miles with a perfect safety record.

On Saturday, California-based Angel Flight West, a slightly younger organization, will confer its Endeavor award on Whitsitt at a black-tie affair in Los Angeles.

"My daughters took me shopping. I got a black dress and a little jacket. I hope it works," Whitsitt said.

Always humble, she deflected the praise that goes with the award.

"What I'm thinking is there are a lot of people who deserve this a lot more than I do across the country."

Perhaps, but the recognition is still well-deserved. The award follows other prestigious accolades Whitsitt has received over the years from AARP, the National Aeronautic Association and the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame, just to name a few.

A time filler

When the last of her four children went off to college and her banker husband, Don, retired some 36 years ago, Whitsitt agreed to take flying lessons with him, something he had always wanted to do.

"We started out together. He took two hours and quit and didn't have the time to give to it. I was challenged by defeat and kept at it," she said.

In the program for Saturday's event, she wrote: "The transition from PTAs to VORs (an aviation navigation aid) was much greater than I anticipated, but it was a proud achievement. For Christmas that year, my friends were receiving Giorgio perfume and negligees. I got a tow bar and a fire extinguisher."

She also got the feeling there was more to be accomplished with her skill than to just look at scenery and go from point A to point B.

She began contacting organizations like the Red Cross, the National Kidney Foundation and the Lion's Club to see if they might benefit from pilots flying people or organs. They could.

And then she advertised in Illinois Aviation magazine to see if other pilots felt the same way about using their abilities for good. They did. At least 40 volunteered right away.

In April 1981, LifeLine Pilots flew its first mission.

Magnificent multitasker

For many years, Whitsitt arranged the flights, flew missions herself, organized fundraisers, did public relations and wrote much of the newsletter.

Although she gave up flying at age 72 after 34 years, Whitsitt continues to be an active contributor to LifeLine Pilots, which is now based at the Peoria airport instead of her home.

She attends the board meetings four times a year and counsels those at the helm.

Two of her children, local appraiser Steve Whitsitt and his sister Lori Ellis, as well as her husband, Bryan Ellis, will accompany their mom to Saturday's event. Husband Don will hold down the fort at the Windsor of Savoy, where the couple has lived for several months.

"At my age, I would not be happy trying to make a trip like that by myself," said Whitsitt, one of the powerhouses of Champaign High School's class of 1949, which includes other local luminaries such as Charlie Nogle, George Shapland and Tom Harrington.

Memories in storage

It's not clear where the Endeavor award will land.

Steve Whitsitt said that when his folks moved to the Windsor, he inherited several boxes of family mementos. In a conference room at his Champaign office is one filled with LifeLine materials.

"I was going through it to help provide information for the award in California and was amazed. There's a citation from Ronald Reagan, (NASA astronaut) Robert 'Hoot' Gibson and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator James Busey," he said. "It's been fun to reminisce."

Because he was grown and had started his own family when his mom began flying, Steve never felt slighted for time. He and his siblings have produced 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren for their parents.

"When my kids were infants, mom took them up in car seats," he said of the rather atypical grandma outing.

He said he was a bit nervous about a videographer coming to tape an interview with his mom, who admits her memory isn't what it used to be, in advance of the Saturday event.

"She just performed like a star," he said.

Full disclosure: It was LifeLine Pilots that got this reporter's family off the ground. As a fledgling private pilot more than two decades ago, I helped stuff newsletters for the organization for many years. In 1996, I met Nathan Fleming at a LifeLine fundraiser called "Plane Fun Day" at Willard Airport, another brainchild of Whitsitt. We married a year later and have been flying high ever since.

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