They say the best ideas always start with beer. You’re not likely to get any arguments from FunFlight founder Michel Verheem.
It was over a beer with the now owner of Hallmarc Aviation, Michael Loccisano, 15 years ago that the aviation charity was born. Now FunFlight is about to fly with its 15,000th passenger.
The milestone is expected to be passed at Tyabb Airport on February 11, as FunFlight holds its first event since the start of the pandemic. It’s time for Verheem to reflect on the journey the charity has been on since the concept was first introduced.
“In 2007 I was doing a self-development course, and part of that course was to organize a community event,” he recalls. “I had planned to do something with youth biker training. That fell through in the last week of planning. My dad had just passed away from cancer, so I thought I’d do something for kids with cancer.”
“Over a beer with Michael Loccisano, he said he was a pilot and it would be pretty easy to get a couple of mates with planes, and if he could organize 10 kids they would fly them around the bay.”
Verheem and Loccisano put together an emergency plan and then contacted Angel Flight for advice on how to organize fuel sponsorship. Word spread through the general aviation community.
“A few days later I got a call from someone from the Peninsula Aero Club (PAC) in Tyabb who said they had heard about the plan through Angel Flight and asked if we would mind if they added some planes… 40 of them. They said that they would organize something, which turned out to be a miniature version of their air show.”
Within six weeks, Verheem, Loccisano and PAC had rounded up 140 passengers from the Melbourne basin and flown them from various airports to Tyabb, where all manner of aircraft displays and entertainment were ready for them. All the pilots were volunteers and paid the cost of the flight themselves.
It got very big.
“It was supposed to be something unique,” reflects Verheem. “It wasn’t even called FunFlight at first.”
Then Verheem got another one of those phone calls. It was from one of the pilots who said that he had a “considerable” amount of money to donate if there was a charity behind the events. So they started a charity and called it FunFlight.
Since then, FunFlight has involved around 30 flying clubs across Australia who want to spread the thrill of flying for free not only to children with cancer, but also to children and families facing adversity. It puts smiles on their faces and allows them to escape life for a while. In 2009, it included children from families who had lost so much in the devastating Black Saturday bushfires.
From Cairns to Hobart and Bunbury to Newcastle, clubs run their own events locally, each one tailored to what the club can do. Sometimes a flight can last 45 minutes, sometimes 15 minutes. The duration of the flight has little impact on the size of the smile or the intensity of the joy.
Then COVID came, and the fun had to stop. This year, Verheem and his team are getting FunFlight up and running again, and as the milestone approaches, it seemed only fitting to open with an event where it all started in Tyabb.
PAC has approached organizations within the Mornington Peninsula to attract riders; a special school, some social care organizations, a hospice organization for children. PAC clearly plans to welcome FunFlight back with the same energy they started it with 15 years ago.
For Verheem, the charity’s return is a poignant moment.
“It’s a bit unreal, especially after COVID,” he said. “Right before COVID, we were working with Variety to do a FunFlight safari at the same time they were doing their car party. We did a big launch event on February 6, 2020, and in March the country shut down.”
As COVID infected all aspects of life in Australia, FunFlight was put on hold as directors diverted their energy and attention to saving their own businesses from devastation. Verheem began to think that FunFlight was gone.
“We had no money, the board members, including me, were compromised. So when COVID became more manageable, I still thought it was done. We had a good entry, but maybe it was time to let it slide.”
“I realized then that it’s not just about us as a board or the work that we do. It’s about what we create for both the passenger and the community. Every time someone says ‘I’ll help,’ it exposes them to the power of volunteer and give without necessarily getting anything.
But the coffers were still empty, which meant that a quick start would not be easy. Enter another enthusiastic benefactor.
One of Australia’s most prolific and popular aviation video producers, Stef Drury, came to Verheem and offered to donate a considerable amount of money, catalyzing the resurrection of FunFlight.
Part of the fresh start is a new format, in which flying clubs will be able to select their own date for their own event, instead of everyone across the country flying on one of two days of the year. What has not changed is the enthusiasm of the passengers and the need for clubs to recruit pilots: FunFlight Captains.
But not everyone can do it; There are minimum requirements that captains must meet, namely:
- captains must have at least a PPL and a current and valid medical certificate
- 250 hours minimum time in command
- 50 hours of minimum time in the type of aircraft to be flown
- endorsements for the aircraft being flown and be current in accordance with CASA regulations
- three takeoffs and landings in the last 90 days, or an approval by a qualified flight instructor or CASA ATO that the pilot has had a check flight in the last 30 days.
Experience has shown over the years that pilots and owners of large six seater aircraft are the most sought after products of the day. Barons, Bonanzas, Senecas, big Cessnas, they all make life easier for organizers and keep families together in the air. Although all types are welcome, Verheem has put out a call specifically for these planes and for anyone with something big enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
Pilots who want to join this year will first need to register their interest on the FunFlight website. At this point, only the Tyabb event on February 11 is open for registration, but more clubs and venues are expected to be added throughout the year.
FunFlight 2023 is gaining momentum as the aviation community once again mobilizes for the good of the community. Although found on the brink of extinction thanks to COVID, the spirit of general aviation has ensured that FunFlight endures.
Verheem, Loccisano and the board might even find time to celebrate over a few beers.