A businessman, who formerly flew as a jet pilot for LifeFlight, has donated $15 million to the profit-for-purpose organisation, making him the biggest individual donor in the service's 40-plus year history.
At 15 years old and too young to drive, John Lewis was pedaling his pushbike to the airport to take flying lessons and gain his first pilot's license.
At 30, he owned his first aircraft and was happily addicted to flying, a passion that has lasted his entire adult life.
Now, at 60 he has made a donation that will make a positive impact on one of Australia's most trusted aeromedical organisations and its patients for decades to come.
"You can ask why do it, or you can ask, why not? Why not do it," said Mr Lewis.
"I've gotten so much satisfaction from my time with LifeFlight and I just felt them being custodians of this aircraft means that stewardship will continue on the work being done."
"I like the direction they take, I really respect the CEO Ashley van de Velde and all the board members."
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Mr Lewis, a successful businessman and owner of the Lewis Hotel Group, which made the donation, has long been a supporter of the aeromedical service, first becoming involved in 2006.
It began with a chance meeting at an aircraft hangar with then-CareFlight, now LifeFlight Australia CEO, Ashley van de Velde OAM and Dean Bordiss, who was fixed wing chief pilot at the time.
By the end of the meeting, the charity's commercial division had a new aircraft, Mr Lewis found himself guarantor for the finance to buy the jet he was selling and a new joint venture, Aeromed Qld, was created.
Owned 50/50 by the profit-for-purpose and Lewis Hotel Group, Aeromed Qld buys and then leases aircraft to LifeFlight.
Mr Lewis had no second thoughts about investing time and money.
"If people are willing to participate, it's a testament to the quality of the operation and of course the quality and character of the people within the organisation," he said.
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Thanks to his financial support, business acumen and advice over the past 15 years, he is considered instrumental in the development and success of LifeFlight's Air Ambulance fleet, which operates domestically and internationally.
"John has been one of our greatest supporters, quietly working with us in the background, never seeking praise or limelight," said Ashley van de Velde.
"He has always offered to back us in tough times, be a guarantor, pay for things himself then lease them back. He is a fierce negotiator and that skill has enabled us to expand our fixed wing fleet to its current high standard."
Along with its iconic RACQ LifeFlight Rescue community helicopters and a commercial rotary wing fleet, LifeFlight operates four Challenger 604 jets from bases in Brisbane, Townsville and Singapore.
The LifeFlight Air Ambulance jet fleet is vital for people in rural and regional areas across Queensland, to have access to the highest standards of aeromedical and hospital care.
It is a far cry from the single Learjet 36 the fixed wing division first operated from its base on the Gold Coast.
"To put it simply, we wouldn't be where we are today without John," said LifeFlight Captain Dean Bordiss. "As a charity, we would never be able to achieve what we have, without John's financial and business support."
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Mr Lewis gained appropriate endorsement to become a first officer and flew both domestic and international retrieval missions. For many years, he kept his qualifications up to date, undertaking training requirements along with the rest of the fixed wing crew.
"I remember one mission, bringing a man with a terrible head injury home from Kenya to New Zealand. We had to fly back at sea-level because of his condition. It was just nice to be able to do it for the family, they really wanted to bring him home. I still get goosebumps just thinking about them," said Mr Lewis.
Mr Lewis was on duty for the 2014 test flight when the organisation's first Challenger 604 jet was approved by Queensland Health as a response aircraft during the ebola outbreak.
He was a member of the crew who flew what was, in 2015, the longest civilian extracorporeal membrane oxygenation movement ever undertaken.
The ECMO machine is a portable heart-lung bypass machine that pumps and oxygenates a patient's blood, allowing the lungs and heart to rest.
"For the aircrew, the actual flight was just a normal flight. We had a specialist medical team with us though and this man basically had his heart outside of his body for the entire flight from Japan to Brisbane," said Mr Lewis.
Like many other aeromedical team members, for Mr Lewis, it was the paediatric and neonatal airlifts that gave him intense personal satisfaction.
"That's where the gratification comes from, in making a real difference. Time is critical you're actually doing something real, making a real difference," he said.
Mr Lewis was instrumental in the negotiation, purchase and collection of three former RAAF Challenger 604 aircraft from the United States.
For him, the camaraderie, banter and personal relationships are why he feels such a sense of gratitude and connection to LifeFlight and the people he flew with.
"We had plenty of incredible adventures together, though we can't talk about those," Mr Bordiss joked.
"He's such a unique man and we've had some terrific experiences flying and travelling together.
"He's built his business from one pub, working hard to acquire and run many more. He's the most down to earth, tell it like it is sort of guy.
"He's done a lot for me personally and he's done a lot for LifeFlight."
The other significant benefit from the Lewis Hotel Group for LifeFlight, is 100 per cent ownership of Aeromed Qld.
The board accepted Mr Lewis' offer to sell LifeFlight Australia his 50pc share in the joint venture.
It was money from that sale that Mr Lewis immediately donated back to LifeFlight.
"I do consider John selling us his share of Aeromed to be his legacy and it is just as important as the generous $15 million dollars," Mr van de Velde said.
"For Aeromed to now be a 100 per cent-owned subsidiary of LifeFlight Australia gives us so many options as we continue to explore commercial opportunities, to generate funds to pay for the vital community helicopter service in Queensland.
"Now that is a legacy any person should be proud of."
For John Lewis and his family, particularly his wife Deb, there is a deep interest in philanthropy.
"My wife was a motivator. She loves helping people, just loves the idea of giving and helping," said Mr Lewis.
"I felt that it was just time to pass the baton - and what better way to pass the baton? It's an appropriate way to exit gracefully and with generosity."
While it is an exit of sorts, John Lewis is not closing the door on LifeFlight.
A life member of LifeFlight Australia, John will also retain his LifeFlight board directorships.
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