KEARNEY — Ronald Rodgers has never been able to get enough of the sky.
He flew two tours in the Korean War, then returned for a second helping of service piloting aircraft in Vietnam. Even when he got back on American soil, he just couldn’t seem to keep his feet on the ground.
“There were a lot of people that went to Vietnam and when they got back, they didn’t want to fly. They just had their belly full of it and they just quit,” Rodgers said. “But I just loved to fly helicopters. So I just kept doing it.”
If not for Ron Rodgers’ insatiable hunger for aviation, CHI Health Good Samaritan might not have a helicopter sitting on its roof today, waiting to save lives.
“Ron was the pioneer that had the initial idea and recognized the need to have an aeromedical program in central Nebraska,” said Luke Ballmer, clinical manager for Good Sam’s AirCare and Dispatch Center. “AirCare would not be here today if it were not for the Rodgers family, specifically Ron.”
Rodgers got his first taste of the clouds when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1951.
A 17-year-old graduate of Kearney High School, he said he “wasn’t interested in college and I thought maybe I better go into the service.” Less than a year later, he was in Korea.
Rodgers did two nine-month tours with the Navy as a flight engineer on a seaplane. By 1954, he was out of the military and moved to southern California, following his parents who had moved there during his deployment.
It was there that he met his wife, Elda. To provide for his new family, he got a job at the Southern California Edison Company.
Still, he couldn’t help but watch the skies.
“Every time an airplane flew over, I thought, ‘That was more fun flying than climbing poles,’” so Rodgers decided to become a pilot.
He started taking flight classes during the day and making car batteries for a different company at night, but the process was going to be too slow. It would take a long time before he could start making money as a pilot.
So, he stopped by the Navy recruitment office and asked if he could go to flight school through them.
“They said, ‘Sure’ and I took all the tests and answered their questions,” he recounted. “They said, ‘It says here that you’re married.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been married a year and a half.’ They said, ‘If you’re married, you can’t go to flight school.’”
Luckily for Rodgers, right next door was the U.S. Army recruiting office.
He walked in there and asked, point-blank: “If I’m married, can I go to flight school?”
For the Army, the answer was yes.
And a year later, Rodgers was officially a pilot, and he was back on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.
He spent another year in Korea, “without my wife,” Rodgers noted. Then, he was at Fort Lewis in Seattle for a month and a half. That’s when they moved the whole company to Vietnam.
There, he flew troops into combat zones.
Rodgers piloted one of the 15-20 helicopters that transported soldiers. The difficult part, though, was returning if the squadron called for a medivac.
“The last two ships in our formation would go back and pick up the wounded and take them out of there,” he described. “That was the worst part. We rotated who was going to be the last two ships ... That was the worst part of it all, having to go right back in after you dropped someone off.”
In another two decades, though, Rodgers would be flying the sick or wounded again, just this time a little closer to home.
By 1963, Rodgers had put in a decade of his life to the service and wanted to spend more time at home. It was time to find something new.
“I had been in the Far East so much, I thought there’s got to be a better life on the outside,” he said.
He bounced around the U.S. trying to find his second vocation. He worked in Nebraska, Colorado and Texas, always doing jobs related to flying.
In the Lone Star State, he started training other pilots who themselves eventually would go to Vietnam. But in the early ‘70s, that company was going to move to Alabama.
With two newly adopted sons, Mark and Blair, Rodgers didn’t want to relocate the family to Alabama. So, he decided to go back home to Kearney.
Along with the moving boxes, Rodgers brought his helicopter.
After purchasing the surplus helicopter from the Army while he lived in Texas, he rebuilt it and overhauled it so it was working good as new. That aircraft became his livelihood as he started Rodgers Helicopter Service.
He started spraying corn, but later also was doing other tasks, from photography to putting new motors on top of grain elevators. But Rodgers thought there was one place in particular who could benefit from air transportation: Good Samaritan Hospital.
The idea had been on his mind for a while, but it wasn’t until his wife was in the hospital that he connected with another veteran and the ball started rolling.
Dr. Joel Johnson, who had been a surgeon off the coast of Vietnam, walked into the room his wife was in to check on her roommate.
“We got to talking,” Rodgers said, and eventually, between the two of them, they convinced the hospital to try out an air care program.
The first two years, Rodgers was the only pilot, flying a helicopter he donated to the hospital. He still had another one for spraying corn, but this helicopter now would be strictly for medical use.
“After two years, the hospital was finally convinced it was something they wanted,” Rodgers said.
Today, according to Ballmer, Good Samaritan AirCare averages one or two flights a day, transporting patients from facility to facility or from the scene of an incident. They fly throughout central Nebraska and northern Kansas, and even have transported patients as far west as Denver or as far east as Omaha.
In 2011, Rodgers was inducted to the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, which recognized him for 60 years of flying. According to prior Hub articles, at the time he had logged more than 22,000 hours in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
At that point, though, Rodgers had sold the aviation business to his son. He’s been retired since the mid-1990s.
The pilot still thinks he’d like to buy and build another kit airplane, though.
“I told my wife I might have to build another airplane, and she just kind of laughed. She didn’t think an 86-year-old man needs to be doing that,” he said.
But after 65 years of marriage, Rodgers added his bride has done nothing but fuel his dreams.
“She’s always been so supportive of everything I was trying to do as we bounced around the country flying,” Rodgers said, tearing up. “All the kind of silly stuff that I’d come up with: that I’m going to try this and I’m going to try that. A lot of women would have said, ‘No.’ But she never did.”
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