Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…TBM…3…4…7…Mike…Echo…10 miles to the northeast…inbound for landing…
Unicom—Winds calm…no other reported traffic…
Angels use airplanes too
I’m sure most people haven’t heard of the Angel Flight program. It’s a network of pilots from all over the United States that transport patients for hospital visits. Pilots who are signed up with the program donate their time and the use of their airplanes to do good. There is a database where the patient can sign up with a trip request and pilots can look at and determine if the trip can meet their schedule. Most trips are shared, meaning one pilot will shuttle the patient half way and another pilot will pick them up and finish the trip. This allows for each pilot to cut both their flying time and expenses in half.
Flying an airplane isn’t cheap, the smallest airplane will cost over $50 dollars an hour to operate and the price just goes up from there with the size and speed of the aircraft. Most pilots who participate in the Angel Flight program have small planes, usually four or six seat aircraft. Most are pretty experienced pilots, I would say that most, but certianly not all, are retired from working, but still have a love for flying and just like helping people out.
I haven’t seen many Angel Flights since Covid has started but before the pandemic I would usually get a couple of flights a year here at Big Sandy. It’s a humbling experience to see the transfer of patients, to watch two pilots who have never met shaking hands and talking about where they are from. These pilots know they are doing a good deed and only for the thank you from a stranger.
I usually know when one is coming because when they file a flight plan and register it as an Angel Flight it shows up in red letters on the aviation website Flightaware. Air traffic controllers give Angel Flight participants special treatment, more direct routes and fewer changes to their flight plans. I think Big Sandy is used because of the restaurant, on field, the Cloud 9 Cafe’. When a transfer takes place the pilot doing the final leg of the flight will usually arrive early, eat, fuel, if needed, and wait on the plane with the patient. When that happens I sometimes get details of what is going on.
The last Angel Flight that took place before the pandemic was a little girl and her mother from Jackson, Mississippi. The transfer pilot told me the little girl had had a heart transplant in Pittsburgh, PA six months earlier. She and her mother had been flown back to Pittsburgh for a check-up. The two Angel Flight pilots were returning her home. When the Cirrus plane from Pittsburgh landed I was happy to see the little girl doing well. She seemed like a normal ten year old, happy and bouncing around. Her mother asked for directions to the restrooms. The two pilots were meeting for the first time, exchanging good wishes and where they were each from, weather, traffic, airplanes – pilot talk.
The pilot picking the little girl and mother up was from Memphis, TN and he would be flying them back to their home and returning to Memphis. Turns out he was also a pilot for FedEx as well. This man flies packages for a living and in his free time he sometimes flies people in need, just because he’s one heck of a good human being. (my words not his.)!
After the mother and child rested for a few minutes the Memphis pilot loaded them up in his Comanche Piper airplane and departed to the west. The Cirrus pilot asked me to fuel his plane while he walked across the parking lot to get lunch. When he returned to pay for his fuel I told him how humbling it is to watch such displays of kindness by him and the other Angel Flight pilots. I know most of the people they fly don’t realize the cost involved in flying airplanes but I do. Therefore, I try to never make a profit off the fuel I sell to the Angel Flight pilots. I always discount it to break even, that’s the least I can do. I didn’t know the other pilot would be picking up the patient or I would have discounted his fuel, too. He thanked me and headed back to Pittsburgh.
About five years earlier a gentleman in a TBM turbo prop plane landed here from Chicago. The TBM is a very expensive airplane, new it costs about two million dollars. Onboard was a local guy who had flown out of Big Sandy a month earlier in a Piper Warrior on an Angel Flight for treatment in the Chicago area. I was shocked to see such an expensive plane doing the return flight. The patient’s wife picked him up and the pilot asked me to top off his plane. The pilot of the TBM looked to be in his early 70’s, nice man, I wondered if this was his plane or if he was just the pilot for whoever owned it. Topping it off took almost a hundred gallons, that’s approximately $400 dollars worth of Jet-A. Operating cost and fuel from Chicago and back, that’s an expensive flight.
When we walked back into the office he reached me his credit card for the fuel, that’s when I told him that I would be discounting his fuel so that I wouldn’t make a profit, only break even.
“Don’t do that! I want you to make a profit. I do these Angel Flights to give back to this world that has given me so much. I started my business in my 20’s, a fabrication shop in Michigan, worked seven days a week for the first twenty years. I brought my son into the business and worked five and six days a week for the next twenty years. During my limited free time I learned to fly but never got to fly very much, I was always working. Three years ago I sold my company and me and my son are retired now and we will never have to work again. This airplane is my reward for working so hard for so long and I want to use it to help people and the Angel Flight program is my way of doing that. I appreciate your offer but I understand you have to make a living and I don’t anymore. The good Lord has blessed me and I want to pay it back if I can.”
We sat and talked for another twenty minutes or so. I walked to the plane with him and asked if I could look inside. It was a first class airplane and you could tell that he would be doing just what he said he was going to do with his new toy – to make the world a better place. His flight orginated in Michigan and that was where he was returning. As his turbo prop engine roared to life and he departed toward Michigan, I thought, “I guess some angels fly airplanes, too!”
Aircraft—November…3…4…7…Mike…Echo…departing runway 3…to the north…
Unicom—Winds…340…at 6…have a safe trip…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager of Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)