1986 Flight for Life exhibit opens at Fargo Air Museum
FARGO — It has been nearly 33 years since an F-4 fighter jet departed from Fargo's Hector International Airport with the gift of life.
Now, the Fargo Air Museum is opening an exhibit about what happened.
Karen and Steve McCann were the parents of the 4-month-old boy whose heart was transported to San Francisco by military jet in the early hours of Dec. 24, 1986.
"The plane, that was one of his favorites,” Karen McCann said about her son, Michael. “Steve would buzz around and buzz his tummy and he would giggle.”
After Michael died, the McCanns made the decision to donate his heart. The recipient was Andrew De La Pena, a baby in San Francisco who was dying of a genetic heart problem that had taken his sister’s life.
The Learjet sent to pick up the heart made it to Fargo, but the plane broke down and could not return to San Francisco.
Then-North Dakota Governor George Sinner contacted Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Alexander Macdonald asking if an F-4 just could be used to deliver the heart.
Back then, the Fargo-based 119th Wing, the “Happy Hooligans,” were on 24-hour alert. Lt. Bob Becklund was 25 years old at the time and was the pilot that flew the jet that night.
"I just happened to be the person who answered the phone that night," Becklund recalled in a speech at a Wednesday, Sept. 18, event commemorating the opening of an exhibit about the flight at the Fargo Air Museum.
Becklund got in the F-4 fighter with Michael's heart in an Igloo cooler and made his way to Salt Lake City, where a Learjet from San Francisco was supposed to pick up the heart.
But when the tower alerted Becklund that there was no Learjet on radar he continued on to San Francisco with the heart.
"I was going as fast as I could — subsonic — because it was in the middle of the night," Becklund said.
Karen and Steve McCann also attended the opening of the exhibit, where they expressed thanks to those whose incredible effort brought new life to someone after their tragedy.
"I am not surprised — this is our community, that's what we do,” Karen McCann said. “Throughout the years, I've heard of so many people that were behind the scenes."
Even nurses who were working a new pediatric intensive care unit at what was then Meritcare that night came to see the exhibit along with former Happy Hooligans and those who helped get the jet in the air that night.
Andrew, who received Michael's heart, grew up to become an impressive man and has visited Fargo and met his heroes. He has never forgotten where it all started and why he is alive at the age of 33.
"I hope that I can live a life that would make him and his family proud," Andrew said.
Anthony went to college at Loyola, got his masters from the University of Amsterdam and has traveled to nearly every continent, teaching English to children. He is now married and says he is ready to settle down.