The grrrrrrrrr of a small plane speeding down a runway for takeoff; a shrill whistle and the clack, clack, clack of a freight train rolling down the tracks in the near distance; the whirling, choppy sound of an aircraft unseen.
These are the sounds of the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City on a Wednesday morning, but the office of Midwest Transplant Network’s Aviation department is quiet. Inside the hangar, a plane sits at the ready to serve the mission of organ donation.
It’s 9 a.m. MTN Pilots Tom Carnahan and Tim Overman greet Genny Ly, a new Organ Procurement Coordinator, to show her the plane – an orientation to prepare for the moment she’ll be on a team that flies out for an organ recovery case.
Carnahan demonstrates how to open and close the door to board the plane, safety features inside the cabin, how to open the emergency exit and more. Walking around the plane, Carnahan points out areas along the wings to be careful; at the rear of the plane, he opens a small compartment revealing a cargo space for bags and equipment.
The plane, a Citation C3J+, has two seats in the front for pilots and eight seats in back. Most are window seats.
After touring the plane and the office, Overman and Carnahan chat with Ly before she goes to MTN’s headquarters to continue the day.
“We are the only OPO in the country that owns and operates its aircraft. There are a few others who have a dedicated aircraft; however, they are managed by a charter service or other outside agency. The pilots and staff who work in MTN’s Aviation department are actual employees of MTN. MTN as an organization is also registered with the FAA as Part 91,” explained Lori Markham, RN, MSN, CCRN, Vice President & Chief Clinical Officer, MTN.
“Midwest Transplant Network is the sixth largest OPO by geography. With our aircraft, we’re able to respond quickly to donor hospitals anywhere in our service area. Because we can mobilize quickly, we are able to support our hospital partners, donor families and recover organs efficiently to maximize the gifts. Forty percent of overall donor patients are outside of the Kansas City metro, so having our own plane and pilots are critical.
“Otherwise, we’d rely on ground transportation – which could take hours – or we’d have to rely on charter or plane services that may not be readily available when needed.”
Being an MTN Pilot
Overman and Carnahan are two of nine pilots at MTN. It’s a fully staffed department, and both agree that having a full team makes a difference in work-life balance.
“It helps to be able to share the workload. We can make connections with each other, talk through needs, and it also means that the team can provide MTN full service.”
There are always two pilots on flights to transport a team and bring them back to Kansas City. The pilots know there is a time sensitivity with organs. The flight prep to get ready for a case includes weather and radars, wind speed and visibility, weight and balance for the plane to operate safely, filing a flight plan, determining alternate airports in case they can’t reach the actual destination and more.
Modern technology has made a difference in simplifying flight plans. “There were a lot of phone calls back in the day. Now we have GPS, digital apps and other tools, including the phone.”
Lemoine Davis, MBA, PMP, Manager, Aviation, leads the department.
“The MTN Aviation mission is ‘To provide safe, professional and efficient air transportation in response to MTN needs.’ Without the department, we would be strained to service our region as timelines to respond would be significantly increased or the cost to operate would increase as charters and ground transportation would be our only options.
“The training the pilots undergo regarding organ donation is informational, not technical. We provide a broad overview of the donation process and expand upon the areas they can, or might, influence. It gives the Aviation team an understanding of the importance of their role, the hazards associated with their cargo, and a general overview of how the aircraft is utilized,” said Davis.
Flexible and Responsive
Each day is different for staff at MTN, including pilots.
“A typical workday for our pilots includes coming on shift, either morning or evening, and waiting to be activated to fly within our service area. If during their shift they are not called out to fly, they could be fulfilling administrative duties or volunteering for an event within the organization. Our pilots are not required to work from the hangar as long as they can adhere to the two-hour callout timeline,” said Davis.
“The team who flies on the aircraft when transporting an organ can vary. Typically, we are flying the organ procurement team that includes an organ procurement coordinator, organ procurement preservation specialist, an organ procurement technician and/or family services staff.”
He described a recent fly-out to Joplin, Missouri, for a recovery.
“The pilots on shift flew the team out in the evening, waited on the ground for a few hours while the procedure took place, and later returned to Kansas City with the team who’d successfully recovered organs. They also brought back two additional passengers whose shift had ended.
“Overall, this took roughly four hours, which would’ve been significantly longer if they had to travel by car, or it would’ve cost more if MTN had to use charter services.”
MTN Aviation Fast Facts
1973 – Midwest Organ Bank created an in-house Aviation department at the urging of the Federal Aviation Administration to “ensure the safety of staff members and transplantable organs.”
2023 – Midwest Transplant Network is marking 50 years of Aviation and is the only organ procurement organization in the U.S. that owns and operates an aircraft. MTN staff can mobilize quickly to anywhere within the service area to support hospital partners and recover organs to maximize the gift of life.
- Number of pilots: Five full-time and four part-time pilots
- Range of experience: 8-48 years
- Average experience: 20 years
- Aviation career experience: military, private charter, private company, medical evacuation, regional airlines, flying bush planes in Alaska, or flying retired military aircraft.
- Flight hours: Approximately 7.5 hours a week or 30 hours per month.
- MTN service area: 150,000 sq miles covering the state of Kansas and western Missouri
Tom Carnahan, MTN pilot, and Genny Ly, organ procurement coordinator, stand outside the door of MTN’s aircraft during an orientation. The hangar door is open to a view of the downtown Kansas City skyline.
MTN’s airplane in the hangar, ready and waiting for its next flyout.
Tim Overman, MTN pilot, sits at the controls of the plane to show the various screens of radar and other details necessary while flying a plane.
Midwest Transplant Network pilots in front of the MTN plane at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, Missouri.