Farmingdale nonprofit marks 1,000th airlift

Jessie Fletcher, 23, exits the plane belonging to

Jessie Fletcher, 23, exits the plane belonging to Don Catalano (L), 55, of Smithtown, at Farmingdale's Republic Airport after a flight from Boston's Logan Airport organized by the Farmingdale-based nonprofit Patient AirLift Services. Fletcher, a former Marine sniper, is doing rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after losing both his legs in Afghanistan. (July 14, 2012) (Credit: Nathaniel Herz)

Don Catalano taxied his Piper Meridian six-seater onto the runway at Boston's Logan Airport Saturday and radioed air traffic controllers that Hero Flight One-Delta-Mike was ready for takeoff.

Catalano, 55, of Smithtown, was on his way to Baltimore, where he was due to drop off Jessie Fletcher, 23, a Marine sniper who lost both legs in Afghanistan -- and Fletcher's girlfriend, Emily Ball, 24.

The unusual call sign was Catalano's way of letting airport staff know Fletcher was on board.

"Air traffic controllers, they're Americans, too," Catalano said. "He's a hero, and I want air traffic control to know it."

The trip from Logan to Baltimore marked the 1,000th flight organized by Patient AirLift Services, a 2-year-old Farmingdale-based nonprofit that connects volunteer pilots who own planes with individuals needing transportation for medical and other reasons.

Of the nonprofit's 300 pilots, roughly 60 are from Long Island, said executive director Eileen Minogue.

PALS flies patients across the Northeast, with costs shouldered by the pilots and the organization. Catalano, who runs a commercial real estate firm, said Saturday's trip would likely cost him $2,000.

At noon Saturday, he met Fletcher and Ball at a private terminal at Logan.

The couple had just left a cruise ship in Boston and were due back at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where Fletcher has been rehabilitating for eight months.

At the private terminal, Fletcher talked shop about sniper rifles with Catalano, a veteran, without incurring the wrath of airport security. And Fletcher, who has prosthetic legs, was also able to skip the metal detector.

Boarding Catalano's plane, Fletcher had to turn one of his prosthetic legs upside down to squeeze into the cockpit.

Catalano seated Fletcher in the co-pilot's chair and let the veteran share the controls for takeoff, and for a good chunk of the flight to Farmingdale. There, the group stopped for lunch with PALS staff and volunteers before the trip to Baltimore.

For Fletcher, an aspiring pilot who has taken a few hours of lessons since losing his legs, it was a significant upgrade from commercial airline travel -- especially the opportunity to take an active role in flying the plane. "There is no comparison," he said.

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