Celebrating five decades in the air

Press the play button to see how pilots from UNC Air Operations help health care professionals meet with patients anywhere in North Carolina from the mountains to the coast.

Whether it’s UNC, Carolina or North Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill goes by many nicknames.

But for the pilots of the University’s Air Operations, it’s ”Charlie Hotel.”

Those tail numbers are heard at air traffic control towers across North Carolina every day as the pilots of UNC Air Operations connect the University with the state one flight at a time.

This summer, Air Operations is celebrating five decades of physically bringing the world-class research of Carolina’s faculty and medical experts to the people of North Carolina. For half a century, the group of pilots has helped health care professionals meet with patients anywhere in the state from the coast to the mountains.

“Fifty years ago, a doctor decided to reach out to underserved people in the state of North Carolina, and with his own airplane flew to out of reach areas,” said Gordon Kramon, director of UNC Air Operations. “That evolved into a flight department [that] grew to six airplanes flying all over the state, every day.”

UNC Air Operations, which is based in a hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, offers flight services to people and departments across UNC-Chapel Hill, the University System and other State of North Carolina agencies.

But its primary focus remains the same as it was five decades ago — flying health care professionals across the state to help treat North Carolina’s underserved populations.

Jenny Hawley, a nurse practitioner from the UNC Kidney Center, is a frequent flier on UNC Air Operations planes.

The ability to fly to places like Wilmington and Asheville in less than 90 minutes allows Hawley and her colleagues to see dozens more pre- and post-kidney transplant patients than they ever could if they needed to drive those places.

Seeing the patients’ quality of life improve means the most.

“Doing this work is very much a mission that I enjoy a great deal,” Hawley said. “Getting out to the other parts of North Carolina is critical to reach the people that really need our services.”