September 12th, 2001. The day after. A nation mourns and the skies are empty… or almost empty. With permission from the FAA, a Wings of Mercy crew flies from Holland, Michigan to Cleveland, transporting Walter Johnson for spinal surgery.
Two years earlier, Walter had been in a car accident and sustained a potentially crippling injury. (The same injury that paralyzed Christopher Reeve – television’s Superman.) Even before the collision, Walter had trouble with his back, cutting short his career with a semi-pro basketball team affiliated with the Harlem Globetrotters, and launching a season in his life of almost perpetual pain.
Looking back in 2011, Walter wrote, “When you do nothing but suffer for twenty years, you turn from the physical side of your life to the spiritual side. Wings of Mercy has not only helped me get to and from my surgeries but has helped me grow spiritually through their compassion for others.”
Paul Elzinga and Kristi Gerritsen piloted the Beechcraft Bonanza on that sober Wednesday, getting Walter to the Cleveland Clinic for the surgery he needed. It was strange to be the only airplane in the sky, strange to be met at the airport by the police and escorted to the hospital, but it was one small way in which our nation carried on and began to heal.