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The crusader

By Büm Tenorio Jr., The Philippine STAR Published Nov 13, 2020 5:00 am Updated Nov 13, 2020 3:27 pm

His is a story of a bad boy who became a Good Samaritan. In the time of COVID-19, the government, according to him, has relied on him for his mercy flights.

Lester Codog, 40, was once lost. As a teenager in Mandaluyong City, he ventured into vice, and as a result he became a father at 16. All his life, he wanted to change his bad reputation. One day, he yielded to his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. His father, an OFW, believed in his dream and sent him to a flying school in Pasay City.

From being lost, he found himself. From then on, he took on a different kind of high. He flies his own planes — one is a two-engine plane, the other has one engine. For eight months now since the pandemic started, he has been doing mercy flights around the country. He flies to the smallest island of Benguet, to the biggest island of Negros, and to any part of the country to deliver medicines and test kits, pick up COVID or non-COVID patients to be treated in Manila or convey the remains of those who have passed away to their relatives. For a few months, all flights were at his own expense. Until many businessmen also became involved in supporting Lester’s crusade to help during the pandemic.

Codog flies his own plane to do mercy flights during the pandemic.

A two-way mercy flight costs about $1,500 for fuel alone. Lester many times does double the number of those two-way flights a day. He flies six times a week. “I used to shoulder all the costs before. But some kindhearted businessmen have started to share their blessings, too,” he says.

Perhaps flying mercy flights is his act of repentance for his past misdeeds. “But it’s really in my nature to help,” he says. “And I want to inspire others who have gone astray that there is hope for people who want to change, for people who want to chase their dreams. Hindi pa huli ang lahat (It’s not yet too late to change).” Clearly, he wants to inspire people not to be weighed down by their past — no matter how sordid it was. Lester used his life experiences to turbo-prop him to the skies.

“Flying is my passion,” says Lester, a high-time pilot, which means he has already earned 2,000 or more hours of flying time. “That means I can be a commercial pilot and the number of my flying hours matches that of a plane captain who can fly a 777 or a 747.” However, he has never ventured into being an international commercial pilot. 

“For 10 years now, I have been promoting general aviation. It’s a dying industry because nobody is buying small planes now and nobody is flying private planes anymore. But during the pandemic, it was the general aviation that saved many businesses,” he says.

“I’ve been flying since 1998. But I stopped for 10 years, from 2000 to 2010. I had to stop because I had to work hard for my living. I left the country when I was 20 years old,” he says.

He became a janitor in the UK. Then he followed his dad to Dubai in 2001 to become his assistant driver. He took other odd jobs. In the process he learned the ropes to put up his own business. He came back to Manila an entrepreneur.

His businesses fuel his passion to fly. He has a business that involves the automotive industry because, “I brought to the country the technology when it comes to car coloring and decoration.” It’s a multimillion-dollar car detailing business, which has expanded to offices abroad. He also dabbles in advertising and marketing.

Another eye-opener came to Lester when, four years ago, he figured in a mishap. “It was bad weather when we flew. We were heavy with cargo. I miscalculated a brand-new airplane as we were landing in a small airfield in Plaridel, Bulacan. Instead of hitting a high-tension wire, I ditched the plane on the side of the tarmac. Luckily, the four of us in the plane survived,” he recalls.

That experience opened his eyes. He says, “I had been living a high life. But that experience taught me that life is short. I lived in a very materialistic world before that crash. I hurt a lot of people. That experience taught me further to pursue happiness by helping others and by being truthful, honest and simple. There’s peace of mind in that.”

It’s the same peace of mind that Lester carries with him every time he flies a COVID-19 patient that needs treatment in Manila, the process of which is well coordinated with the local government unit. It’s the same peace of mind he has in his heart every time he carries 12,000 swab test kits in the plane for medical use in Manila. He has peace of mind and compassion when his passengers are relatives of patients being treated in Manila, patients who are on the brink of death.

“My co-pilot and I do our swab test every 10 days. It’s required in our mercy flights. Thank God we are still safe,” says Lester, who has a devotion to the Sto. Niño.

What’s in it for Lester?

“Happiness. That’s something you can’t buy. I’m just happy to help. When I hear the people we help or the government employees say ‘Thank you’ to me, that’s more than enough. I’m just happy to be part of the healing process of the country,” he says, the peals of his laughter ringing many times during our Zoom interview.

There’s no approved vaccine yet for COVID-19. But if kindness could cure, Lester Codog’s generosity of spirit could make one feel well. That’s the crusade that will always make his spirit take flight. That makes him high.