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Airlift venture faces some hurdles

April 09, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

A British pilot who has announced plans to fly international relief missions from a base in Hagerstown has drawn enthusiastic support from local officials and humanitarian organizations, but he has a great deal of work ahead of him.

Howard N. Leedham, a British combat veteran who is a pilot for U.S. Airways, announced Monday his intention to base Charity Airlift in Hagerstown. He predicted he could be ready to fly within three to six months.

Leedham, 40, has taken several steps, including obtaining nonprofit, tax-exempt status from the government and identifying potential crew members.

He also has begun raising funds and has secured permission from Princess Diana's charitable foundation to use the late princess' name.

Several hurdles remain, however, including:

* A plane. Charity Airlift does not yet have an airplane. Leedham said he has found three possible C-130 transport planes. C-130s range in price from $3 million to $20 million.

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* Permits. The organization must receive permission from the U.S. State Department to buy a former military plane. The group also must obtain a certificate of operation from the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the administration would examine the organization's operations and also must approve an aircraft maintenance plan.

* Money. The long-term goal is to raise enough money, through individual donations and corporate support, to create an endowment that would pay operating costs.

Leedham said he is about a third of the way toward his fund-raising goal, which he declined to reveal.

"We're at the most difficult stage at the moment," he said.

If it ever does get off the ground, Charity Airlift would fill an important niche, according to several organizations that distribute food and medical supplies to war refugees and victims of natural disasters.

"I'm sure that thing could be very busy," said Jim Brown, human needs consultant for International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. "One of the problems with the Kosovo effort is if you don't have your own C-130 or military aircraft, it's very difficult to get aid in."

Chris Rebstock, director of affiliate services for Second Harvest, said charitable groups often have trouble getting food and other supplies into disaster areas.

Even when they can hire commercial haulers, Rebstock said relief organizations often cannot ship large quantities and must land at major airports, which sometimes are far from the trouble spots.

Second City, the nation's largest hunger relief charity, experienced the problem firsthand last year when it attempted to aid victims of Hurricane Georges in Puerto Rico.

"Which is why when we heard of Charity Relief, we were so interested," Rebstock said.

Thomas B. Riford, marketing director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said Leedham has launched an ambitious project. But he added that he thinks Leedham has taken the right steps.

"I think it's very likely. I think it's going to happen," he said.

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