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Charity Airlift tries for takeoff

December 05, 1999

Charity AirliftBy SCOTT BUTKI / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




The leader of an international nonprofit charity which will be based out of the Hagerstown Regional Airport is hoping to get $3.2 million in pledges in less than 30 days.

As a commando pilot for the British Royal Navy, Howard N. Leedham, 41, used to run missions. Now he is raising money for a new mission, an organization he founded called Charity Airlift.

Charity Airlift would be paid by other charities to provide aviation service to disaster areas and other spots around the world, said Leedham, who has more than 4,000 flying hours. Ideally the agency would be able to offer that service for free in about five years, he said.

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He has been working on getting Charity Airlift off the ground since about April 1998 but in recent months he is getting closer to making the dream a reality, he said.

In September his family moved into a house in Greencastle, Pa., so now he is within a 10-minute drive of the airport.

The major hurdle right now is fund-raising.

"People ask, literally, is this going to fly or not?" he said. He knows that once Charity Airlift starts making flights and getting media coverage it will get donations.

But Leedham wants to get $5 million in pledges before those operations begin.

He said he now has $1.8 million in pledges from three anonymous donors, as well as letters of support from the American Red Cross and other charities and nonprofit organizations.

He is asking for financial pledges as well as gifts-in-kind, such as vehicles, from local residents, organizations and businesses. Pledges will help show the community's support for the project as he seeks funding elsewhere.

If the $5 million comes in by Jan. 1, Leedham will move the charity's main office from his house to the airport, buy the agency's first plane and start training the team for that plane, he said.

"I personally think their goal is extraordinarily commendable. Hagerstown and Washington County want to be a part of it," Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said.

Until that $5 million fund-raising goal is reached, though, Leedham is working for U.S. Airways Express in Charlotte, N.C., as a captain. Once a week he flies to Charlotte so he can do that job, working on Charity Airlift during his weekend, he said.

He would quit that job when Charity Airlift takes off because he would be a pilot as well as agency president.

While in the British Royal Navy, Leedham said he noticed problems that charities and relief agencies had getting supplies and donations to other counties. Sometimes the goods in planes were pilfered, other times they were delayed or sent to the wrong place, he said.

After retiring from the military in April 1997, he decided he wanted to provide airlift support domestically and internationally to charities, and that is how Charity Airlift began.

He chose Hagerstown as the base because he wanted to be close to the Atlantic but not so far north that cold winters would be a problem, he said. He also wanted to be close to the embassies in Washington, D.C., because they can be a necessary stop in getting permission to fly aid into other nations, he said.

Eventually he hopes to have as many as five C-130 cargo planes, which have the benefit of being able to land on dirt strips. The crew can toss goods out the back of the plane. One plane would be used solely for missions inside the United States, he said.

He says he has permission from the late Princess Diana's charitable foundation to use her name, which he promises will be done tastefully. The agency business card and Web site have the words "In memory of Diana, Princess of Wales," under the company logo.

That has helped as he seeks pledges, he said. The goal is to get enough donations to set up an endowment so large its interest would pay operating costs, he said.

Those interested in donating may call 1-717-593-9604 or check the World Wide Web page at www.charityairlift.org.

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