Starting with the first Beechcraft King Air 350i that Wheels Up took delivery of in 2013, all but four of the 72 King Airs to join the fleet of the private aviation company have the same stylish blue and white paint scheme featuring the word “UP” on the tail. Those exceptions are the aircraft that belong to the company’s philanthropic initiative, Wheels Up Cares.
The custom livery has turned pink, teal, red and, as of last month, camouflage to create one special edition Wheels Up airplane in four of the past five years. The camo airplane rolled out during National Veteran and Military Families Month to honor those in the military who bravely served and continue to serve.
Each of the four aircraft rep-resenting Wheels Up Cares supports a nonprofit organization financially and by making passengers and fellow aviators aware of the cause when they see the unique color scheme. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, also known by its acronym TAPS, offers compassionate care to anyone grieving the death of a loved one who died while serving in the military, including by suicide.
Dave Kaufman, Wheels Up co-founder and chief flight officer, said the company created Wheels Up Cares to meet what the leadership team felt was a corporate responsibility to use their platform to support and help others.
“We hope to add one or two a year to the fleet that will be there permanently and that speak to a cause that our membership supports,” he said. “For example, the teal plane is in support of the Janet Burros Memorial Foundation and the inspiration comes from Wheels Up members Mara Sandler, who is Janet Burros’ daughter and advocate, and Mara’s husband, Ricky. With the camo plane, many of our employees as well as the pilots assigned by Gama Aviation that fly Wheels Up aircraft have served or have loved ones that have served in the military.”
There was also a connection between Wheels Up and TAPS. Admiral Mike Mullen, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who served as the 17th chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a senior strategic advisor to Wheels Up and his wife serves on the TAPS board of directors.
How the initiative works
After the unveiling of each Wheels Up Cares aircraft, the company makes a donation to the supported organization or organizations it is collaborating with. All pilots flying Wheels Up planes wear lapel pins throughout that initial month that match the airplane’s color.
After their introduction, the aircraft remain in the Wheels Up fleet so that their eye-catching paint schemes will continue to raise awareness for each cause.
“Wheels Up creates educational materials that are placed onboard each of the four planes in the program,” Kaufman said. “We want every member and their passengers to understand the significance of the special aircraft and to have information on the philanthropic partner that the aircraft flies in support of.”
The response, he said, has been overwhelming.
“Every day we receive emails from members, employees and pilots expressing their pride and excitement about seeing the Wheels Up Cares planes on the ramp,” Kaufman said. “A member recently told us that as a veteran, he couldn’t imagine a better way to feel appreciated and recognized for his service than with this flying symbol of support.”
Based in New York, Wheels Up has more than 6,000 North American members and is currently in its seventh year. Those members are guaranteed access to a Wheels Up fleet of more than 115 aircraft up to 365 days a year with as little as 24 hours’ notice and at fixed hourly rates for time flown only. In addition to the King Air 350i, the fleet includes Hawker 400XP, Cessna Citation Excel/XLS and Citation X aircraft. Wheels Up does not operate the aircraft; Gama Aviation operates and manages the fleet.
In a 2014 King Air magazine article about the launch of Wheels Up, co-founder and CEO Kenny Dichter explained that his past experience founding Marquis Jet, which sold thousands of jet cards to individuals and businesses, led him to create the Wheels Up membership model and to execute what was at the time the largest business aircraft order for twin turboprop aircraft in general aviation history: Up to 105 new King Air 350i aircraft and with factory service as the acting maintenance provider, a deal valued at $1.4 billion.
“I learned that fractional jet owners were, on average, flying distances of just under two hours. I saw a gap in the market and identified the King Air as an ideal aircraft, giving birth to the idea of Wheels Up,” Dichter said at the time, explaining that the 350i was attractive to a new segment of private aviation he wanted to reach as well as the experienced private flyer.
He added: “The Beechcraft King Air 350i is the perfect aircraft for Wheels Up due to its proven track record, tremendous flexibility and its efficiency for regional travel. It is a much more cost-effective way to fly short-haul missions, providing access to hard-to-reach places, but with all the creature comforts. It also provides the segment’s greenest aircraft, taking more passengers farther on less fuel for consistent savings with the lowest operating cost per seat mile.”
The Wheels Up Cares fleet
OEM Textron Aviation and Wheels Up have worked together to conceptualize and design the exterior paint schemes for the four aircraft. For example, on the camouflage airplane they tried out several camo patterns before landing on U.S. woodland camo and selecting the colors within the design. Many concepts were created and a variety of colors tested including matte versus glossy paint. The result is four greens and one white in standard glossy paint.
Textron Aviation completes the painting process in Wichita, Kansas. The first step in painting the camo aircraft, a 2014 King Air 350i, was to strip the aircraft from its current paint. Once the aircraft was stripped the paint team started by painting the lightest color. Then, using a vinyl mask to protect the previously applied color, each additional paint color was layered on top. Once all four colors had been added to the white base coat, the paint team went back through for final touchup.
Here’s a look at the four King Air 350i aircraft now flying in the Wheels Up Cares fleet.
The Camo King Air
Bonnie Carroll founded TAPS two years after the death of her husband in an Army C-12 plane crash on
Nov. 12, 1992. A retired Air Force major, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her ongoing efforts through her military career and TAPS to provide support to the families of fallen service members.
She found few resources when she needed them, so she built TAPS from the ground up. Over the past 25 years, the organization has assisted about 90,000 people grieving a relative or friend who died while serving in the military. TAPS averages 19 new survivors seeking assistance every day and pairs them one-on-one with a volunteer peer mentor who has suffered a similar loss, whether the match is relationship to the deceased, manner of death, branch of the military, geography or another factor.
TAPS connects survivors with grief and trauma resources and also runs its own programs, from seminars and retreats for adults to camps for children. They operate a national resource and information helpline for all who have been impacted by a death in the Armed Forces.
Because the organization receives no government funding and survivors pay nothing for support, donations and spreading the word about their services through efforts like Wheels Up Cares are vital.
“Our organization is funded entirely by donations from individuals, foundations and corporations,” said Katie Maness, TAPS’ senior advisor and director of development. “TAPS operates on a very lean budget with 88% of every dollar invested in programs, resources and services for military families. To keep our costs low, TAPS has only one headquarters location in Arlington, Virginia. Most of our staff work out of borrowed office space or their homes so they are closer to the survivor communities.”
One new element of this latest Wheels Up Cares aircraft is a limited-edition desktop replica of the camo plane available for purchase, with proceeds from sales going to TAPS.
“Wheels Up is a perfect partner for TAPS because they are a company that values quality service delivery, employs military veterans and honors the sacrifices of our armed forces,” Carroll said.
The Red King Air
In February 2018, Wheels Up rolled out its red King Air in conjunction with American Heart Month and it continues to fly as a reminder of the importance of cardiovascular health. It supports the American Heart Association (AHA) and Simon’s Heart, a nonprofit started in memory of a three-month-old who died from an undetected heart condition while taking a nap.
Simon’s Heart has raised more than $2 million that it spends on efforts to raise awareness about the warning signs and conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death in children and to improve detection, innovation and reaction, such as making more defibrillators available.
The American Heart Association funds cardiovascular medical research, educates consumers on healthy living and fosters appropriate cardiac care in an effort to reduce disability and deaths caused by cardiovascular disease and stroke. According to the AHA, heart disease (including coronary heart disease, hypertension and stroke) is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S.
“Our work would not be possible without the generous support of committed companies like these who provide donation opportunities to their customers,” American Heart Association board member James Postl said at the airplane’s roll out in 2018. “These corporate citizens provide a force multiplying impact to our work and help us get ever closer to a world without needless suffering or death.”
The Teal King Air
The teal plane made its inaugural flight in the Wheels Up Cares fleet in Sept. 2016, taking advocate and ovarian cancer survivor Sherry Pollex to the Ovarian Cancer National Conference. Pollex, who at 35 years old in 2014 was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer, and boyfriend Martin Truex, Jr., of NASCAR fame, partnered with Wheels Up on the event.
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and the ongoing nonprofit connected to this airplane is the Janet Burros Memorial Foundation, established to raise awareness and to support the early detection, prevention and treatment of ovarian cancer. The foundation holds an annual golf tournament in Greenwich, Connecticut, that has raised $6 million. Organizers said their funds are currently being allocated to efforts to identify the illness earlier and to personalize treatment protocol for patients with specific variants of ovarian cancer.
This year about 22,530 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer and about 13,980 women will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage.
The Pink King Air
The pink plane was the 45th new aircraft delivered to the Wheels Up fleet in August 2015 and it launched the Wheels Up Cares program. They waited until October to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the airplane continues to be linked to raising general awareness as well as for the Dubin Breast Center of The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai.
The New York City center is one of the world’s top facilities for breast cancer treatment and research, offering a full range of highly personalized, multidisciplinary services, according to Elisa Port, MD, director of Dubin Breast Center of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai and chief, breast surgery, for the Mount Sinai Health System.
“Our whole center depends on supplemental philanthropy,” she said. “We give the highest level of care to patients regardless of their ability to pay and our level of care includes support services that insurance doesn’t always reimburse for.”
Wheels Up did not provide the amount of financial contributions it or its members have donated to the nonprofits but did share data on how the three previously flying aircraft have been used to raise awareness: 11,657 passengers flown on 6,243 total flights landing at 1,529 unique airports.
“It’s a really inventive and ingenious way of generating philanthropy,” said Port, who traveled with Wheels Up to Wichita to take delivery of the pink King Air in 2015. “Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in this country besides skin cancer. So in my mind, there can never be enough awareness. This is going to happen to one in nine women in their lifetime. If that airplane reminds even a few people over the course of a year to get a mammogram or to go get checked, it’s been purposeful.”