Georgia-Based Phoenix Air GC Flew to Liberia on Ebola Rescue Mission

By Katheryn Hayes Tucker
The Daily Report

A Phoenix Air Gulfstream Jet at Monrovia Airport, Liberia.

(Seen above) A Phoenix Air Gulfstream Jet at Monrovia Airport, Liberia.

Here’s what wasn’t known as viewers watched news video of a private charter company’s airplane taking off from Cartersville to fly to Liberia, pick up an American physician/missionary stricken with Ebola and bring the patient back to Atlanta for treatment at Emory Hospital by doctors there and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and then doing it again for a second patient.

One of the pilots also was the company’s chief lawyer.

“I volunteered to fly,” said Randall Davis, vice president and general counsel of Phoenix Air Group Inc., after he was back at his desk, covered in contracts for future trips for the company.

Davis flew with a team of pilots on the second of the two missions to bring back a nurse who had worked with the doctor. The pair had worked in Africa as a team through a North Carolina-based mission group. “These are selfless people,” said Davis. “We’re just hoping for their recovery. We’re also hoping for Emory and the CDC that they’re able to research this disease so that it can be eradicated someday. That’s never going to happen unless you get them to a facility like they are now.”

Phoenix Air Group is a special missions company, said Davis. “Sometimes the missions are medical, sometimes exotic animals or artwork. Some are special people.”

As an experienced licensed pilot, he fills in when needed for the company’s trips all over the world taking passengers from one place to another for medical treatment or other purposes. He’s been flying since he was a teenager, fascinated by the planes he watched land and take off from an air strip on land rented from his father’s farm. He also flies his own personal plane and volunteers his services to fellow members of the State Bar of Georgia Board of Governors. Past president Ken Shigley gave him the honorary title of “air marshal” and named Davis’s Beechcraft Duke “Bar Force One.”

As the GC of Phoenix Air, he drafts the contracts and clears legal hurdles to allow the company’s planes to fly all over the world. The groundwork also includes securing clearances to fly over foreign air space and land for refueling stops and customs checks. Those matters are routine for the staff at Phoenix Air, he said. But in this case, the agreements that had to be executed before the first plane took off included the CDC and the U.S. Department of Defense. And it all had to be done quickly—in a couple of days.

But the preparations had begun five years earlier, when the CDC first asked Phoenix Air to begin work on a special isolation unit to fit into the back of one of the company’s medical transport planes. The idea at first was to create the capability in case one of the CDC’s doctors or medical staff were to become ill in a distant country and need to be transported home for treatment. After the incident a few years ago when an Atlanta lawyer diagnosed with tuberculosis flew home from Europe on a commercial airplane, the idea broadened to a more general purpose.

“This is the first time a patient like this has been moved,” said Davis. The isolation unit contained an inner and outer chamber. The three-member medical team used the outer chamber to put on their biohazard suits before going into the inner chamber to take care of the patient. “It’s the first time this type of isolation chamber has been used.”

He added, “Our aircraft are the only ones in the world that can use this at this time.”

The missions used a Gulfstream 3. On his trip, Davis said the crew took off from Cartersville and flew straight to the refueling stop at Lajes Air Base in Portugal’s Azores. They then flew to Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. The crew took the required rest stop for the pilots, staying on the ground about 16 hours before loading the passenger and taking off. After another stop at the refueling point, they returned to the U.S., where they stopped in Bangor, Maine for a customs check—and to pick up a fresh pilot.

They landed at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, where the patient was moved into a Grady ambulance.

Then the pilots flew to their home base in Cartersville, “which doesn’t take long in a Gulfstream,” Davis said. “If it was eight minutes, I’d be surprised.”

Davis was a bit surprised when he arrived home to find an ABC news crew waiting for him. He gave a brief interview before getting some sleep. The news clip of him describing the plastic walls of the isolation unit never mentioned that he’s also the company’s GC.

Aside from the isolation unit in the back, the trip felt like a regular mission for the Phoenix Air crew. But because of public concerns about Ebola,there was a difference. At the refueling stop in the Azores, they were asked not to even open the door. The customs check on the return in Maine was “abbreviated,” Davis said.

He believes the event is an opportunity for education about the disease, which he described as “infectious but not contagious.” With the precautions taken, the crew was safe to fly the mission—and proud to do so, he said.

Plus, as Davis said, “They wouldn’t have gotten there any other way.”