1986 Heart Flight Exhibit Debuts at Fargo Air Museum
Brig. Gen. Becklund Retires, Donates Commissioned F-4 Paintings
FARGO, N.D., Sep. 2019 – Heroes from the historic 1986 Heart Flight were honored yesterday when a new, permanent exhibit commemorating the flight was unveiled at the Fargo Air Museum. After 37 years of service, Brig. Gen. Becklund – the Heart Flight pilot – is retiring from the National Guard and donated the exhibit. The exhibit includes the Heart Flight story, press clippings, two paintings by artist Marc MaGee and reflections from Karen and Steve McCann, parents of the infant heart donor.
In December 1986, an F-4 fighter jet with the North Dakota Air National Guard was requested in the middle of the night to fly a donor heart from Fargo to a waiting child in San Francisco within a four-hour window. Becklund, who was a first lieutenant at the time and on duty, flew the plane. An F-4 is a twoseater fighter jet, so the tiny lifesaving heart of donor Michael McCann was packed in ice and placed in a picnic cooler that rode in the seat behind Becklund. Becklund touched down in California and handed over the cooler to a Stanford University ambulance crew. The transplant was successfully completed despite missing the four-hour window.
“The North Dakota Air National Guard has a unique mission in that we support both the President of the Unites States and the Governor of North Dakota. In this case we were able to execute a mission directed from the governor and help a family in need,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Becklund. “Although we may now have different equipment and missions than we did in 1986, we are still ‘Always Ready, Always There’.”
When the Heart Flight occurred in December 1986, transplants were still considered experimental with no formal process for organ donation. LifeSource – the organization who manages organ donation for North Dakota – 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 a second chance at 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 in Fargo.
“We couldn’t be prouder of our son, our decision, and Andrew for living life to its fullest,” said Karen McCann, donor mom.
Through the Heart Flight, North Dakota impacted the world of donation. More recent highlights of the state’s impact include:
- In 2007 North Dakota adopted The Revised Uniformed Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA). The law governs donation and ensures that a person’s individual, lifetime decision to be a donor is honored upon their death.
- Also, in 2007, North Dakota passed a state law to allow youth under the age of 18 to register as a donor on their driver’s license or state ID card. The law was supported by friends of Alexa Kersting, a young girl from West Fargo, North Dakota who died while waiting for a lung transplant.
- Today, 67 percent of North Dakotans proudly have “donor” on their driver’s license.
Photos from the event are available here.
About the 1986 Heart Flight
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 on December 22. 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 now the challenge:
- 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 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.
In July 1986, California residents Stephen De La Pena and Deborah McCarthy welcomed their son Andrew to the world. Two weeks after Andrew was born, he began breathing fast and was rushed to Oakland Children’s Hospital. There he was diagnosed with a fatal heart defect, endocardial fibroelastosis (EFE) – characterized by a thickened inner lining of the heart. Stephen and Deborah had recently lost their daughter Sarah, who was six months old, to EFE. At five-months-old, Andrew was terminally ill and desperately needed a heart transplant. Heart transplants were rare at the time – especially for infants – but there was hope for Andrew. Word came from Fargo, North Dakota that a heart was available. The challenge was getting the heart to California within hours to transplant. Within eight hours, Andrew’s gift of a new heart was recovered and successfully transplanted – despite missing the ideal four-hour window to recover and transplant a heart. Andrew’s heart beats now stronger than ever and continues to make the most out of the life he was selflessly gifted. Andrew finished his master’s degree, stepped foot on all continents, visited 40-plus countries and speaks five languages. He pledges to always find a way to serve people and spread good energy to others. Andrew and the McCann’s formed a special bond staying connected through social media and even shared a meal together – with Andrew’s wife – at the McCann’s home while Andrew was in Fargo.
About Fargo Air Museum
Started in 2001, Fargo Air Museum is a nonprofit organization that serves to promote interest in aviation through education, preservation and restoration. North Dakota’s premiere aviation destination, the Fargo Air Museum is home to aircraft of all eras – from the modern Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance drone with an impressive 100-foot wingspan to the “most accurate recreation of a Wright Brothers’ flyer the Smithsonian Institute has ever seen.” A “flying” museum, many of the airplanes occasionally take to the sky, a unique feature not found in the vast majority of the nation’s air museums. Learn more at fargoairmuseum.org
About North Dakota Air National Guard
119th Wing’s mission is to provide trained and ready Airmen executing world class MQ-9 precision attack and reconnaissance, kinetic and non-kinetic target intelligence production, and expeditionary support capabilities for the nation and state. Learn more at 119wg.ang.af.mil
Jackie Williams, Fargo Air Museum
Sarah Sonn, LifeSource
CMSgt David H Lipp, 119th Wing PA/NDANG