Coble Takes to Air For Hero Flights

Wed October 22, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Maura Bohart

A few months ago, Christopher Payne, a soldier in the U.S. Army lost his ability to walk when he was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq. He lost his leg and severely injured his left arm. He went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Manassas, Va., for treatment.

Today, not only is Payne walking, but he recently flew, thanks to a program for injured soldiers. Wounded veterans get wings for a day through the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC), a volunteer organization where pilots take veterans to their families.

“It’s strictly volunteer work for us, but it’s worth it. These guys are heroes,” said Tom Coble, president of Coble Trench Safety of Greensboro, N.C. “They put their life on the line for our country — for you and me.”

Coble volunteered for the program about a year ago, because he has a Beechcraft King Air B-200 airplane and he wanted to do something to assist U.S. warriors.

“Normally I fly for business. We have eight locations in four states,” Coble said, “but this flight was special.”

Payne ventured out of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Manassas, Va., early on Sept. 20, 2008, equipped with his artificial leg and his bright attitude, and he took the plane ride to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where his extended family had rented a house on the beach.

“It was the first time they had seen me walk on my artificial leg,” Payne said. “It was great to see everyone.”

Coble isn’t the only one that sees Payne as a hero. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designates VAC flights as “hero flights,” and gives them more direct routing and preferential treatment.

“They take the last digits of your aircraft, which is 8TC for my aircraft and they designate it Hero Flight 8TC,” Coble said. “When they see it’s a hero flight, they’ll try to put you at the head of the line when you’re taking off and give you a direct route when possible.”

“It was a really nice flight,” Payne said. “It was a lot better than being on a commercial line, because it was just my family and me. We were comfortable and Alan got to ride up front with Tom.”

Alan is Payne’s five-year-old son, and he supervised the flight to ensure everything went smoothly.

“He was a very respectful young man,” said Coble. “He really seemed to be enamored with the buttons and the chatter on the radio and he picked up a lot of things about flying.”

The recovery is going well and Payne expects to be running within a few weeks. He is not letting his injury stop him from doing great things.

“I plan to go to law school,” he said. “I always thought I’d make a good lawyer.”

But first he has to “clear” with the Army. He will go to commodity shops and fill out paperwork. Also, in Payne’s law career, he won’t need his Army gear, so he has to return it. Finally, he will go through a medical board process, where officials will review his records and determine how much to pay him and what his level of disability is.

“There’s two ways to clear,” Payne said. “You can go back to your unit or you can go to the warrior transition brigade [at Walter Reed Army Medical Center]. I was accepted back into my unit to clear and I’m really happy about that. It’s easier because you’re around people that you were already with and you don’t feel broken. You feel like you’re just one of the guys.”

Payne isn’t broken. In fact he has a great attitude and a bright future.

“They are an extremely nice couple,” said Coble. “I was just amazed at their positive outlook — not one ounce of animosity or negativity about anything that’s happened. They were just very thankful that they’re still together and very thankful about how the service has treated them.”

And a positive attitude is important.

“Attitude determines your altitude, no question about that,” said Coble. “If you believe you can’t do it, you can’t — and if you believe you can, you can.”

Overall, Coble is very glad he signed up for the program.

“I’m thrilled to do it and I look forward to doing it again soon,” he said.