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Husker Helicopter pilot

Kim Wolfe talks while flying the Husker Helicopter on Saturday above Columbus.

It wasn’t a bird or a plane flying over Columbus and Schuyler, it was a helicopter. More specifically, the Husker Helicopter.

Longtime Columbus resident/Schuyler native Kim Wolfe has stayed busy since Friday flying all over the state, between Omaha, Columbus, Schuyler, Norfolk and Central City, using his chopper for rescue operations and to get people unable to travel by road due to flooding where they needed to be.

"It’s a good feeling just to be able to help people out,” Wolfe said, noting many people he had helped rescue in Colfax County had tears in their eyes and were overwhelmed with joy when they thanked him. “I think everybody gets involved. It’s just the right thing to do and gosh, why wouldn’t you want to? The nice thing about Nebraskans is we like helping out and taking care of each other.”

On Saturday, Wolfe spent eight-plus hours in the sky between Columbus and Omaha. He used the Husker Helicopter for rescue missions, as well as to take various people to different towns they needed to get to but couldn’t because of the flooded highways and roads statewide. 

“Not this bad,” he said while flying the helicopter that was headed back north toward Columbus in response to if he had seen anything like the flooding before.

As Wolfe flew the helicopter over flooded farms he said he felt terrible seeing so much devastation across the state, noting he felt particularly bad for the animals that were stranded on islands that couldn’t be reached.

Wolfe and his wife, Jill, now of Omaha, are no strangers to helping others and the skies. A few years ago, they sold what was the state’s largest ambulance company, Midwest Medical Transport Company, and medical helicopter service, Midwest MedAir, to an Omaha–based private equity firm. The company concentrated primarily on non-emergency and emergency ambulance transports and wheelchair van services, expanding only to communities that requested the services.

At the beginning of this decade, Wolfe spent a year training to get his pilot’s license and invested millions to buy two twin-engine helicopters.

Wolfe never flew for the company; however, since retiring he has continued to operate Husker Helicopter out of a hangar just north of Columbus Community Hospital. He said he does the flying but stressed that his wife does everything behind the scenes and keeps things running smoothly.

The couple has donated thousands of flights over the years for charity events and to fulfill a Make-A-Wish requests. They’ve also helped with environmental flights and assisted in missing people scenarios, so when those in Schuyler reached out last week, he said it was a no-brainer to help out however he could.

“We’ve done it forever and ever,” said the former Marine of using the helicopter to help people.

Wolfe was first called for help Thursday night by Columbus Community Hospital’s Stacie Johnson, who, with her husband, Lance, lives in Schuyler’s Lake Socorro area. It all came about when on Thursday morning she received a text message from her husband, who said nearby waters were drastically rising by their home.

“He sent me a picture of the water flowing and told me to call him ASAP,” Johnson recalled, noting he told her those in the neighborhood couldn’t get out because about 5 feet of water had trapped them.

By that afternoon, conditions had worsened. The water had continued to rise and the power was out, Johnson said. During the day, Johnson’s friend and fellow Schuyler resident Sandy Seckman had jokingly suggested Johnson call Wolfe to ask about flying in food and supplies for the 20-plus people stuck in the neighborhood that had become an island. Seckman’s joke, she said, inspired her.

“They were working to get people out,” Johnson said, praising Colfax County Emergency Manager/Highway Superintendent Mark Arps and his team, as well as Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl, for their efforts. “But the airboats weren’t working. There were 70 mph winds and raging water.”

Johnson said her father was Wolfe’s high school math teacher, and through the years, they had always talked about their family going up for a ride in the helicopter. So Johnson said she called and asked Wolfe, who didn’t hesitate. She then said she worked with Schuyler Fire and Rescue’s Dave Johnson (no relation), Kracl and Arps so that Wolfe’s helicopter rescue went through all of the proper channels before execution.

Wolfe said wind conditions prevented him from getting up in the air Thursday, but that he managed to do so early Friday. Wolfe made six trips Friday morning, bringing more than 20 Schuyler residents and their pets to CHI Health Schuyler, where Dave Johnson arranged for people to be transported by bus to the community shelter at Schuyler Elementary School.

“Oh my gosh. He was totally my hero that day,” Johnson said of Wolfe. “Before the flood came, there was no warning, so this was just pretty amazing. Everyone at Lake Socorro is full of gratitude and blessed Kim Wolfe was able to help us out. God puts people in places where they need to be.”

Indeed. Johnson said her husband was home from work that day because he had to work that Saturday, and it turned out to be good because he was able to help out a middle school boy (Dave Johnson’s son) who lives nearby and was home while his dad was at work and his mom was in Lincoln for a relative’s surgery.

“God puts people in the right place at the right time to deal with the right situation, and God gives you friends and resources to be able to get through devastating times,” she affirmed.

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As for Wolfe, he appreciates others’ kind words but doesn’t consider himself anybody’s hero.

“I doubt that,” he said, in response to people calling him a hero.

Wolfe said the term ‘hero’ should be applied to Columbus area farmer James Wilke, who passed away at age 50 Thursday while trying to rescue someone during the flooding in Columbus.

“Very much so,” he said of Wilke being a hero. “He paid the ultimate price trying to help others.”

Wolfe was back up in the air helping first responders and others on Monday, unsure of when exactly he might stop getting calls. For him, it doesn’t matter. He said he just wants to do his part.

“It’s second nature,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

The Johnsons are currently staying at Stacie’s parents’ house in Schuyler after spending a few days with “generous friends.” She is undoubtedly appreciative of Wolfe but still is waiting to take a ride in the chopper herself.

“I still haven’t gotten mine,” she said of a potential ride, with a laugh, on Monday night.

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

Photos, videos: #NebraskaStrong in flood-ravaged areas

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Online editor

Victoria Ayotte Brown is the Journal Star online editor.

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