Flying to the aid of Africans fighting illness

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Three years ago, the first flights of the Airborne Lifeline Foundation took off, transporting medical specialists and supplies via commuter planes to remote corners of Botswana to help villages combat HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. This week, Johnathan Miller -- a Loudoun County resident who mortgaged his 30-acre farm in Leesburg to fund the launch of the organization -- is back in Africa to discuss expanding the foundation's operations into Tanzania.

Two days before leaving for Botswana, Miller, 57, sat on the porch of the farm he owns with his wife, Elizabeth Thompson, and recounted how it all started. While working at an international consulting firm in 2004, Miller was approached by a client who was looking to dispose of hundreds of unwanted, turbo-prop commuter planes. That's when Miller said he first thought of using the planes to transport medical personnel and supplies to remote regions in Africa.

Unfortunately, the idea didn't progress fast enough for Miller's client.

"They wanted to move the planes quickly," he said. "In Africa . . . it takes a lot of time."

But the seed had been planted.

Miller focused on Botswana first because he was familiar with the country, having served as a Peace Corps director there in 1983, one of a multitude of professional identities that Miller has had in the past few decades.

Miller started his career as a lawyer in his native Kentucky, then became senior director of the National Security Council and deputy political director to President George H.W. Bush, which was followed by his Peace Corps post. He has also been a horse breeder, beer brewer, president of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and president of an international consulting firm.

Determined to get his idea off the ground, Miller approached the health minister of Botswana, who supported Miller's plan. The country had one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and with a population spread across vast areas and in remote regions, treatment was a challenge, Miller said. Despite skepticism from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Miller reached out to health-care providers, determined to succeed.

"I became somewhat obsessed with getting this done, because I'd been told it couldn't be done," he said.

Miller created the Airborne Lifeline Foundation in 2006 after establishing the infrastructure -- planes, pilots, doctors and remote area clinics -- to support the operation. The foundation signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Ministry of Health.

"But we had no idea how we were going to fund it," Miller said.

He and his wife had just put their farm under an environmental easement, he said. The couple sold the resulting tax credits, essentially mortgaging their home to get the first Airborne Lifeline Foundation planes in the air.

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