Nervous handshakes are exchanged all around, while an assortment of backpacks, boxes of medication, toys and suitcases are unloaded from the back of an SUV at this quiet little airport in Sonoma County, Calif. The mishmash of items is piled loosely at the foot of the baggage door of a gleaming Cirrus SR-22. A father, mother and a slight, dark-haired little girl look anxiously on while veteran Angel Flight pilot Ben Marcus and I get the Cirrus ready to go. The little girl—who’s nine years old but looks far younger—surveys our movements with careful, dark eyes that seem wary beyond her years. Clutching a much-loved stuffed zebra, she forces a smile when we tell her and her mother it’s time to board the plane. Dad is staying behind today, and he gives them the nod that it’s okay to climb into this airplane with two complete strangers. “Take care of them,” he says with a catch in his voice.”Fly safe.”
This is Angel Flight. It’s a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization that arranges free, non-emergency air travel for children and adults with serious medical conditions or other compelling needs. Angel Flight West’s network of 1,400 pilots in 13 Western states donate their aircraft, piloting skills and all flying costs to help families in need, enabling them to receive vital treatment that might otherwise be inaccessible because of financial, medical or geographic limitations. There are Angel Flight groups that serve almost all the United States. Since 1983, Angel Flight West pilots and commercial airline partners have provided over 60,000 flights to 38,000 people, covering over 16 million miles. Combined with Angel Flight Central and East, the organization has flown some 40 million miles in support of families needing medical transportation.
Angel Flight West started in 1983 in Los Angeles, Calif., as part of the American Medical Support Flight Team. In 1986, the chapter morphed into what is now Angel Flight West. At first, the group’s mission was so unique that they had trouble convincing health care providers that they would and could do what they promised: fly people in need in private aircraft for free. By 2009, Angel Flight West had flown more than 40,000 missions.
I learn that the little girl’s name is Serena. Her mother, Amanda, is no stranger to Angel Flight. Serena was born with her digestive organs outside of her body, requiring transplants of her liver and pancreas, and necessitating the removal of her small intestine. Serena can’t eat solid food and has a host of related complications. She and Amanda have been traveling to UCLA’s renowned medical center for nearly a decade. Today was their first flight in several years. This is also the first time that Serena will remember flying in a small aircraft. She was too young to recall previous flights. “Are you all ready, Serena?” I smile as we confirm her booster seat is secure. She nods a tentative “yes.”
The ability to travel easily across the country is something that most of us take for granted. But, for those going through a serious illness or an ongoing medical condition, life becomes a whirlwind of doctors, procedures, test results and appointments. The emotional impact of a serious illness adds so much stress to a family that everything becomes complicated. For many, the financial, physical and emotional burdens can make an ordinary trip impossible. There are also many people who live in rural areas far from established medical centers. For many of these folks, treatment at a state-of-the-art facility is beyond their financial or practical means due to distance and cost. For these families, Angel Flight is, literally, a lifesaver.
On the day of our flight, we began in Santa Monica, Calif., where Marcus is based. He owns the Cirrus with a couple of other pilots and has been volunteering with Angel Flight West for many years. This day, President Obama was visiting the Los Angeles area, and a strict “no-fly” zone and TFR (temporary flight restriction) had been created that would be in place for 24 hours. Our proposed flight would likely have to be canceled. “VIP” TFRs in the Los Angeles area are notorious for their strict enforcement and far-reaching encroachment. The area is so densely populated and the airspace so busy that the Secret Service rarely considers waivers. I had certainly never heard of one.
Marcus thought to contact an Air Traffic Control Specialist at the FAA’s Southern California TRACON facility. He explained our medical flight, assured them it would be operated under IFR (pilots can operate Angel Flights under VFR, as well), and gave them precise routing and identification. All they could offer in return was that they’d consider it, pass it through to the Secret Service and let us know. Without much hope, word came via email that Marcus’ Angel Flight request had been approved.
Our call sign would be “Angel Flight 800.” The July day dawned already sweltering. Departing Santa Monica, we were the only aircraft in the usually crowded Los Angeles airspace. It felt almost eerie. We picked up Serena and Amanda in Santa Rosa, a two-and-a-half hour flight. By the time we loaded the Cirrus and took off, it was 1:30, and the sun was baking us like potatoes in a tiny oven. “You must feel pretty special,” Marcus said to Serena as we banked over the rolling hills of the East Bay and headed out over California’s Central Valley. “The Secret Service gave us special permission to fly you today.” Even in the relative comfort of a Cirrus, the oppressive heat wilted everybody’s desire to talk. Serena did her best to answer my silly questions, her tiny voice lost in the drone of the engine. Serena has never eaten solid food, and her frail lips are marked with sores from the relentless liquid-only diet. The hope is to someday get her to where she can eat food. The treatment at UCLA is one step closer.
What Angel Flight does is much like operating a small airline. Pilots might notice the resemblance to on-demand charter operations. But, Angel Flight’s operation is further complicated by the extra care and expense required when working with passengers who need extra help and may be traveling with parents, other family or medical personnel. Angel Flight’s bottom-line mission is to help those who need critical care and can’t get to the proper facility on their own. The beneficiaries of this service never have to pay.
Angel Flights require waivers that protect both the pilot and passengers. It’s easy with digital forms that can be transmitted to Mission Headquarters with the click of a button.
The operation of Angel Flight West is military in its precision. At the organization’s headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., a ground team manages the complex system of matching pilots with passengers, coordinating flights, spreading the word among referral agencies and continually recruiting new volunteers. It’s magnificent to watch, especially since much of the work is done by volunteers. They even provide “Earth angels” who help transport patients and families from the airport to their housing or medical facility.
Though it has taken 30 years to build trust in Angel Flight by health care professionals, today they know Angel Flight’s capabilities and refer patients through various channels. Besides flying patients, the organization flies in support of organ transplant and blood supply situations—for the organ recipient, organ donor and the organs (or blood) themselves. They arrange “compassion flights” for individuals who need to visit critically ill or injured family members, and they provide flights to relocate survivors of domestic violence, to transport children and adults to camps for a variety of special needs, and to fly support staff and supplies during natural disasters or other crises.
At our cruising altitude of 11,000 feet, over the parched hopscotch that’s now the Central Valley of California (three years of intense drought have left empty irrigation canals and brown expanses of dried crops), the heat becomes too much for Serena’s mother. An inversion layer is keeping the temperatures blazing in the cockpit. Marcus connects the oxygen cannula and shows Amanda how to wear it. Serena has brought out her collection of My Little Ponies (her favorite) and has positioned them inside a plastic Barbie jet while informing me that “Twilight Sparkle” (the purple pony) will be the captain. Amanda tells us how Serena’s illness has left her with a residual “panic” response. Having had a daughter with cancer myself, I can relate to that feeling and try to distract her with questions. She starts to feel better as ATC routes us over a brush fire to help provide information about the blaze to controllers.
Flying an average of over 10 missions per day throughout the year, Angel Flight needs more volunteer pilots. As the pilot population has diminished, so has the pool of volunteers, while demand for Angel Flights continues to increase. The requirements to become an Angel Flight pilot are straightforward: minimum of a private pilot certificate with 250 hours PIC and 75 hours of cross-country time. Pilots must be current on flight reviews, medicals, insurance and recent experience (you must have flown at least 50 hours in the preceding 12 months). A mandatory mission orientation (on the ground) familiarizes you with Angel Flight operations. To make it even easier for pilots, Angel Flight just recently abolished the $50 membership fee and annual dues, so pilots join for free.
With the help of the Internet, Angel Flight makes it easy for pilots to fly a mission. They have an online database system known as AFIDS for communicating with members and coordinating missions. Pilots receive their own credentials to the site, and they log in to see missions that originate or terminate at their selected airport. If they see a mission they’d like to fly, they click and “request” it. The request is sent to mission headquarters and, if approved, pilots receive the “mission information form” with all necessary details of the flight, from the medical condition being treated to the weight of the passenger(s) and baggage. Pilots can request a “mission assistant”—somebody from Angel Flight who will accompany them and assist with all aspects of the mission. It couldn’t be easier.
Non-pilots can get involved with Angel Flight in several ways. The organization needs mission assistants, ground transportation volunteers, wing leadership and community outreach assistants. It also welcomes donations of any amount, since Angel Flight is funded only through the generosity of donors.
For those who question why they’d want to go through the effort of joining Angel Flight, the truth is that they’re giving people hope. As our modern world has showered us with technology, we’ve lost touch with real human connections. Social media fools us into thinking we have hundreds of “friends” who hang on our every word, while social research tells us that we’re becoming more alienated instead. Angel Flight is a front-row seat to enriching our own lives through service. Henry David Thoreau said, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” Angel Flight is an opportunity for us to share the passion we feel for flying and create hope for someone while looking through their eyes. It’s telling that many Angel Flight pilots have flown hundreds of missions and become close friends with their passengers.
We point out UCLA’s medical complex while approaching Santa Monica, and Serena eyes it with weary expectation. I’d be going home to a comfortable weekend, while Serena and her mom would begin a phalanx of unpleasant examinations and treatments. In the back seat, Serena pulls her stuffed zebra tight and gives me a shy smile. After we secure the plane, she runs up out of nowhere and gives me an enormous hug. It’s not a forced hug like you give your aunt at Thanksgiving, but the kind of hug you earn after a long day when you tell your kids a really good bedtime story. Serena manages a quiet, “Thank you,” muffled by my shirt. Hugging her in return, all I could think of is her courage, and I’m thankful my sunglasses hide the tears welling up in my eyes. This is Angel Flight.