azlogoFive Arizona Wing pilots participated in the 39th Navajo Christmas Airlift on Nov. 10, flying donated toys, clothes, household items, and food for distribution to Navajo Nation families during the holidays.

Maj. David Roden, flying the airlift for the fifth time, and Capt. John Giddings, participating in his third airlift, were interviewed by Fox10 Phoenix the morning of their flight. The two are members of Falcon Composite Squadron 305.

Lt. Col. Wayne Lorgus also flew a CAP aircraft in this year’s airlift. Maj. Kerry MacPherson and Capts. Phil Jossi and Gary Stark participated with non-CAP planes. Lorgus is the Arizona Wing’s assistant emergency services training officer. MacPherson belongs to Arizona Wing Group 7, Jossi to Payson Senior Squadron 209, and Stark to the Willie Composite Squadron.

Airlift logoThe New Mexico Wing also scheduled seven planes to fly in support of the airlift.

Planes flew from 24 airports in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico, delivering donated items to the Southwest Indian Foundation and landing either in Gallup, New Mexico, or Winslow, Arizona, depending on weather conditions.

In a follow-up message to airlift coordinator Greg McColley, Jonessa Ramos of the Southwest Indian Foundation in Gallup wrote, “Year after year the donations you provide are of such high quality, including so much new product (that) is vital to be distributed across the reservation communities at this time of year.”  

McColley assumed responsibility for running the airlift, which his parents began 39 years ago. According to the airlift website, “Dick McColley, in his role as president of the Honeywell Flying Club, researched and considered various community service opportunities that would allow general aviation aircraft pilots to assist the underprivileged at Christmas.”

He and his wife, Betty, eventually settled on the idea of pilots transporting donated goods to benefit members of the Navajo Nation.

In 1985, the campaign’s first year, eight aircraft participated. The number of planes and pilots and the volume of donations has grown steadily over the years, with about 80 pilots and 90 missions scheduled to fly or transport items by ground over the three-day 2023 airlift. High winds in Gallup caused some flights to be canceled and others, like Roden’s, to divert to Winslow.

“I cannot commit precisely for the volume of donations,” McColley said. “I have received feedback that continues to affirm that 275 pounds per plane remains conservative, and with the scheduled missions and ground transport we are in the range of 27,000-30,000 pounds of donations.”

Each pilot who participates in the airlift is responsible for collecting donations, often with local community organizations, schools, businesses, and churches chipping in to provide requested items. Roden coordinated with Falcon Field Airport in Mesa for the use of a temporary hangar space to store the donated items before the airlift.

“I had 10 pilots pick up donations from the storage unit at Falcon Field, which the airport graciously donated for temporary safekeeping of the donated items,” Roden said. “There was still a large number of bags with donated items left over, and I could have used eight to 10 more planes.”

Instead, McColley arranged for a 10-foot utility van to pick up the remaining donations at both Falcon Field and Deer Valley airports in Phoenix to be driven to Winslow on Saturday.

“I was overwhelmed by the amount of donations delivered to me but was glad we were able to get them delivered by any means necessary,” Roden said. “This is an annual event, and I’ll be reaching out again next year for volunteers.”
Maj. Margot Myers
Public Affairs Officer
Arizona Wing