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“Retired from Practice, But Still a Doctor at Heart”

Jack Blackshear had his eyes fixed on a career in medicine from an early age. When he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve to become a flight surgeon in 1970, he discovered another passion: flying. As part of his military training, Jack learned to fly the North American T-28 Trojan through the training command at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. 

[Pictured above: AFSC volunteer pilot Dr. Jack Blackshear flying Jackie and her daughter Deja home from Houston.]

Those initial flying hours lit a fire in Jack. At his first post in El Toro, California, he joined a flying club and earned his private license. Not long after, he was sent to Vietnam with the 1st Marine Air Wing. His tour in Vietnam primarily consisted of taking care of Marine Corps fighter squadron personnel, and he understood and respected the bravery and skill of these pilots when they invited him to ride in the back seat of F4 Phantom jet fighters chasing each other through the air (not over enemy territory).

Jack’s military service continued to support his interest in flying even after he left the Navy. During his medical residency at University of Arkansas, the GI Bill paid for Jack’s courses to earn his instrument rating. He determined that it was a good time to purchase his own plane and bought a four-seater Cessna 182 Skylane.

When you are a skilled gastroenterologist who owns a plane and works in a largely rural state, someone is bound to put all the pieces together: “A lot of doctors asked me to fly up to see people who couldn’t come to the city for treatment,” he says. For several years, Jack made regular trips to a couple of small Arkansas towns to provide colonoscopies and other gastroenterological screenings and treatments.

Then, in the mid-1980s, his practice got busier, the flights became less frequent, and “I just wasn’t flying enough to maintain safety,” he says. “I quit flying for 27 years.”

After retiring from the staff at the VA hospital in Little Rock in 2007, Jack found he had more time for flying. A friend encouraged him to take it up again. He refreshed his training and instrument flying skills and entered a partnership with four good pilot friends in Cessna N738PP, a reliable four seat single engine aircraft, in 2008. 

In 2009, another pilot told Jack about Angel Flight South Central, and the mission clicked instantly with him. “I’d retired from practice, but I’m still a doctor at heart,” he says. “Now I can give back in this different way.”

Volunteering with AFSC has given Jack a great medium for keeping in touch with his love for both healing and flying. “Not only do I love the patients and seeing how they respond to their treatment, but it’s also a great way to maintain safety when you fly,” he says. Like his fellow Angel Flight pilots, Jack takes a great deal of care to prep for each flight, treating each one as a professional mission. He keeps current in the FAA Wings Program and is a member of the FAA Safety Team in Arkansas.

[Above: Jack’s easy manner relaxes his passengers. Here, Kaden and his mom, Angela, have a laugh on their 2015 Angel Flight.]

When asked about some of his favorite passengers, Jack singles out Betty Hughes from Jonesboro, Arkansas. Jack has flown Betty to Little Rock for treatment multiple times. “We’ve become really good friends. She’s given me picked okra and jam. After I pick her up in Jonesboro and fly her to Little Rock, I drive her to her lodging while she gets treatment and then reverse the process to get her home.”

When he’s not befriending Angel Flight passengers, Jack continues to work part-time as a medical examiner for the Army Corps of Engineers and plays clarinet. In fact, for a number of years, while he was in solo medical practice, Jack played for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. (“I had good friends who would cover for me at my medical practice when I had to play or practice for the orchestra,” he says.) He also has sung as a lyric baritone with the Arkansas Opera Theater. (“I’ve sung to people on their death beds and at a lot of funerals.”)

In both his art and his medicine, Jack has a grace about illness and mortality that is a comfort to his passengers. “As a physician advocate for people who are bravely facing serious illness, I try to be a good listener,” he says. “As a Christian physician I believe that love is an action word, and that is why I fly.”


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