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Fargo Air Museum exhibit details 1986 "Heart Flight"

D. Webster

A new exhibit detailing the 1986 "Heart Flight" out of Fargo is now on display at the Fargo Air Museum. Prairie Public's Danielle Webster has the story.

In December of 1986, an F-4 Fighter Jet with the North Dakota Air National Guard was called up for a special mission. Brigadier General Bob Becklund, who was a first lieutenant at the time, got the call - The governor of North Dakota himself, George Sinner, had rang the current Major General Alexander MacDonald to see if an F-4 fighter jet was available. It was a bitterly cold North Dakota winter night, and the jet scheduled for the job at Hector International Airport wouldn't start. Becklund accepted the mission: it was transporting an infant Fargo boy's donated heart across the country for another little boy in San Francisco, California.

"About that time, you could see the ambulance showing up at the alert barns out there, and the doctors milling around. While we were there and getting the governor's approval, and adjutant general's approval, and stuff like that - we were figuring out, you know, what's happening here and how are we going to do this," Becklund said.

"Ultimately the decision was made - you're going, you're going to take this thing to Salt Lake City. We spent some time trying to get the cooler in the backseat safetly with the weapons systems operator, but I determined it just wasn't safe. If we had to eject, it would be fatal for the backseater. So we made the decision to kick the backseater out, and strapped the cooler in the backseat by itself, shut the canopy - and I would go solo to Salt Lake City. That was the plan."

In Salt Lake City, Becklund had planned to give the heart to another pilot who would complete the transport. But that pilot wasn't coming. So, Becklund refueled his jet and completed the trip to San Francisco to hand off the heart.

"By that time I had coordinated exactly where I was going to be at Moffett Naval Air Station so the ambulance could be waiting there for me, and they were. And I just handed them the Playmate cooler, said 'thanks, goodnight.' And that was that."

The heart was delivered to a little boy named Andrew De La Pena, who had been born with a disorder called endocardial fibroelastosis. That same condition had claimed the life of his older sister the year before. The heart transplant saved his life - but the parents of the little boy back in Fargo who had donated that heart were grieving the loss of their own son. It was about 20 days earlier when Karen McCann got a call from her babysitter about four month old Michael.

"It was a Tuesday, about 3:30 in the afternoon. I got a phone call from my babysitter saying Michael had stopped breathing," Karen McCann said. "And so I dashed in my car, and I got there when they were coming through the front door with him. They were able to get his heart going again, but nothing ever else came about. So that was December 2, and December 22 was when we donated. So we had 20 days to come to grips with what was happening."

For many years, Karen and her husband Steve remained anonymous about their identity. It wasn't until 2007, twenty years later, when the McCanns finally agreed to meet Andrew at an event at the Fargo Air Museum.

"Governor Sinner, when they decided to do the 20 year anniversary, called us up - because he knew who we were, and asked us if we would participate." Steve said. 

"We had a message on our answering machine from Governor Sinner," Karen said. "Yeah. It was crazy."

"So we got to meet him at the 20 year anniversary, and met him for dinner out at Rose Creek, him and his parents," Steve continued. "He just had life in his eyes, a guy you could tell was making the most of his life. He was an inspiration almost."

Andrew De La Pena, the young man with their son Michael's heart beating in his chest, grew up to join a boy's choir and travel the world performing. He would get a degree in theater at Loyola University in New Orleans, and then obtain his Master of Science in international studies from the University of Amsterdam. It was there Andrew met his wife.

"He's taught all over the world, he's been on almost every continent on the world. And now he's a new husband," Steve said.

Karen smiled, adding, "He married a woman named Leoni, and my mother's name was Leona. What are the chances?"

Since the eventful night of the "Heart Flight," Bob Becklund was able to work with a Canadian artist to get two paintings created detailing the mission. Those paintings, along with news clippings and stories about Michael and Andrew, are now on display at the Fargo Air Museum. Becklund insists he isn't a hero in this story - he was just the guy who happened to get the call. But he says he is proud to have been a part of the events that saved a little boy's life.

"The coolest thing is meeting Andrew, if you ever get a chance to meet Andrew - he is one that appreciates the gifts given to him, and has lived his life in appreciation of those gifts. He's traveled the world, he's done a million things - I think he speaks five languages. You know,  he's just an amazing person, so you talk about an inspiration. Just the opportunity to meet him made this all worthwhile."

At a ceremony marking the opening of the exhibit, the McCanns spoke about the gift of organ donation - and urged people to become donors themselves.