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Historic “Heart Flight” Honored at Fargo Air Museum

Over thirty years ago, an F4 fighter jet delivered a life-saving heart transplant from Fargo to San Francisco.

It was just after midnight on a bitterly cold morning in December 1986. A plane at Hector International Airport in Fargo was grounded on the runway. Its engine wouldn’t start in the frigid temperatures; and inside, the clock was ticking its precious cargo – a little boy’s donated heart bound for a donor in San Francisco.

Michael Stephen McCann was born August 22, 1986 to loving parents Steve and Karen McCann. On December 2, at only four months old, Michael stopped breathing while asleep at his babysitter’s home. Michael was rushed to the hospital but was ultimately taken off the ventilator. In the midst of their grief, the McCann’s made the courageous decision to donate their son’s heart and liver. A 5-month-old San Francisco boy, in desperate need of a new heart, was quickly identified by the medical team in Fargo to receive Michael’s.

Getting Michael’s heart to San Francisco from Fargo quickly was the challenge that lied ahead:

At 11:45 p.m. CST, December 23, Michael’s heart was recovered for transplant. A problem arose at Hector International Airport, where one of the engines on the jet slated to transport the heart wouldn’t start.

A desperate early morning call was made to then North Dakota Governor George Sinner. Sixteen minutes later, the Governor reached The Adjutant General, Major General Alexander P. Macdonald, at the North Dakota National Guard headquarters in Bismarck hoping an F-4 fighter at the Fargo base could fly an emergency mission. The clock was ticking.

At 3:06 a.m., CST, the then lieutenant Robert Becklund flew solo in a two-person F-4 fighter jet carrying the precious heart in a red and white cooler in the back seat from Fargo to San Francisco.

At 4:43 a.m., PST, Lt. Becklund landed at Moffett Naval Air Station at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay, handing off his precious cargo to a team from Stanford.
This incredible he Heart Flight happened in 1986, before there was a formal process for donation. LifeSource wasn’t even founded until 1989, three years later.

“The events that took place were rare, extraordinary and frankly jaw-dropping,” said LifeSource CEO Susan Gunderson. “The courage and commitment shown by everyone involved are truly awe-inspiring. That same ‘can and will’ spirit drives the work we do at LifeSource every day to make donation happen.”

Donation is an incredible gift. It can provide healing to families, like the McCanns, who have lost someone. And donation provides life to patients on the waiting list, like Andrew.

Thirty-three years later, Andrew’s heart beats stronger than ever and he continues to make the most out of the life he was selflessly gifted. Andrew finished his master’s degree, visited 40-plus countries and speaks five languages. He and his wife have even spent time at the McCann’s home here in Fargo.

This historic flight was honored last month with a new, permanent exhibit at the Fargo Air Museum. Susan Gunderson, LifeSource CEO, spoke at a press conference alongside General Becklund, General MacDonald and Steve and Karen McCann.

View photos from the day.