Doug Ellis, a pilot and board member with Angel Flight, shares his experience with the organization at a recent Dougherty County Rotary Club meeting.
ALBANY — Flyers with a pilot’s license who want a reason to get up in the morning during their retirement can find purpose through an organization that operates under the belief that transportation barriers should not compromise the ability to get medical care.
Doug Ellis, a pilot and board member for Angel Flight, shared what he has gained from being a part of that organization during a recent visit to Albany.
Angel Flight, based out of the DeKalb Peachtree Airport, is an organization made up of volunteer pilots who fly patients who are medically stable and ambulatory — free of charge — to distant medical facilities for lifesaving treatment when there is a financial need or inability to use commercial transportation due to their affliction.
Ellis, a former service member in the U.S. Navy, has been flying for several decades. As he’s aged, Ellis has found that there is a tendency to gain experience while also losing sharpness.
“We have to do a physical every two years (to keep working with Angel Flight),” he said. “As long they think I can still pilot an airplane, I can still do that.”
Ellis told an Albany civic club during his visit about the time he flew one young girl on a 900-mile trip to Texas for leukemia treatment that she would otherwise have had to travel for three days by car to get to. That trip, as well as the others he has flown, was made with the help of his plane, otherwise known as “Cricket.”
About 40 percent of Angel Flight’s traffic includes children, and one-third of them are cancer patients. A quarter of them are patients flying back and forth for skin grafts following a burn injury.
“Burns are a very difficult pain,” Ellis said. “If you are going to have any injury, try not to get a burn.”
Angel Flight also transports individuals involved with organ transplants, and sometimes the organ itself. In some of those cases, corporate jets are lent to expedite the process — because time is of the essence.
“Last year, (Angel Flight transported) 600 organ transplant patients and families,” Ellis said.
Angel Flight also delivers supplies to disaster areas, putting the organization among the first responders in times of national crisis. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Angel Flight helped get cadaver dogs to New York. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the organization assisted in bringing in $42 million in supplies that had to be flown in — often landing on roads instead of runways.
Monetary flow is completely through private and corporate donations, and $600,000 is needed a year to maintain operations. Either by renting or owning, the pilots are expected to supply their own aircraft and gasoline. They can have either a private or commercial license, but they are required to have an instrument rating.
Ellis said he has seen some stations sell gasoline for less than $4 a gallon, but most cost more — sometimes as high as $9 a gallon. Cricket holds 50 gallons, 48 of which are usable.
The donations, which go toward the salaries of eight individuals at the DeKalb airport coordinating the program, have been paying off. In 2014, Angel Flight pilots flew 2,584 missions. Since 2000, there has been a 900 percent increase in annual traffic.
Last year, the organization’s volunteers flew 2,600 missions.
“It is a very active organization,” Ellis said.
In addition to donations, more volunteer pilots are currently being sought to meet the increasing demand.
“We need more patients, and we need to tell medical professionals about what we are doing,” Ellis said.
Angel Flight typically serves those residing in an area consisting of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. When needs extend beyond that range, connections are established with affiliated organizations through the Air Care Alliance.
To date, Angel Flight has gone 32 years without an accident.
Ellis said the pilots who come onboard benefit by helping others, but also by staying current.
“I’ve been flying since I was 16 years old, and I’ve enjoyed flying all my life,” he said. “In my retirement, I learned (about Angel Flight), and a number of friends came with me.
“It is a way of helping others … and it is a good way to stay current.”
One Thanksgiving, Ellis was asked to take a Wounder Warrior home for the holiday. His plane was escorted in, and waiting on the ground were several Marines, law enforcement officers and a woman bearing an American flag. When the warrior, who had one leg that was compromised, got off the plane, he was embraced by the woman in an emotional encounter.
It turned out that the woman was his mother.
“That mission has made all the other missions worthwhile,” he said.
Background information available on Angel Flight’s website notes that the organization started in 1983 when founder Jim Shafer saw there was a desperate need for patients to find inexpensive, or free, transportation to get to medical treatments. He discovered that many families could not afford to fly back and forth to regional hospitals or treatment centers. Some lived in rural areas with no nearby airport.
Recognizing the need, Shafer recruited the original “Fabulous First Fifteen” pilots, and they started organizing flights from his kitchen table. The organization moved into its current office in 1991, and has branched out and opened offices in Alabama and South Carolina.
Also on the website is a brief testimony from Jill Coley of Albany.
“I have a very rare and complicated condition, and there are only a few places in the country that specialize in its treatment,” Coley said. “Without Angel Flight, I would not have been able to make these trips to Johns Hopkins. Going there has given me new hope for recovery.”
Tori, a child who has also utilized Angel Flight, wrote a note of appreciation to the organization that now appears on one of its flyers.
“Dear Angel Flight, Thank you for taking me to the doctors and helping me to get better,” Tori wrote.
For more information on Angel Flight and how to help, visit angelflightsoars.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org