By Dawn Gagnon
Pilot Dan Herrick touched down at the General Aviation building near Bangor International Airport just before noon last Wednesday with a special delivery: 11-year-old Camara Johnson and her mom, Cherie Nichols.
The Woodland girl, who is undergoing treatment for a bone deformity in her foot called tarsal coalition, needed to get from her small Aroostook County hometown to Bangor for an appointment with her orthopedic surgeon.
Herrick’s mission on Wednesday was to fly the girl and her mother from a small airport in Caribou to Bangor, a distance he covered in about an hour and 15 minutes.
Nichols said Wednesday’s flight was their 20th over the last two years with Angel Flight Northeast, a nonprofit organization that provides air transportation in private aircraft by volunteer pilots so that children and adults may access life-saving medical care free of charge.
The divorced mother of five children, three of whom have special needs, Nichols said that without Angel Flight, she would be unable to get her daughter to and from her appointments with medical experts in Bangor and Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Mass.
“I don’t know what we would do without Angel Flight. I really don’t know. It would’ve been impossible,” Nichols said. “It’s been a lifesaver for us.”
During Wednesday’s flight, Camara, who usually falls asleep during her Angel Flight trips, listened to music over Herrick’s XM radio.
“We were dancing up there,” Herrick said with a chuckle. Camara also combed the mane of the little pink toy pony that Herrick presented her on behalf of the Hasbro toy company, one of Angel Flight’s corporate sponsors.
“She combed my hair, too, but it didn’t do any good,” Herrick said after ushering the girl and her mother out of his four-seat 1969 Piper Cherokee single-engine airplane.
One of the Bangor Police Department’s motorcycle cops, Herrick serves on the department’s Special Enforcement Team. He also manages Pirate’s Cove, a miniature golf and gaming complex in Bar Harbor, where he keeps his airplane.
“So I’m back and forth between Bangor and Bar Harbor a lot. I guess I’m a pirate, a pilot and a policeman, I can’t get away from the Ps,” he said with a laugh.
Wednesday’s mission was Herrick 132nd since 2004, when he signed on as a volunteer Angel Flight pilot.
Air and Earth Angels
Since Angel Flight Northeast’s first flight in 1996, its mission coordinators have scheduled more than 45,000 flights, spokeswoman Barbara Sica said last week. She said that to date, the organization’s more than 1,000 volunteer pilots have provided free air transportation to nearly 60,000 patients and their families.
“We can’t tell you enough about the pilots. I mean, think about it. They are donating their planes, their fuel and their time. They’re just so generous and compassionate to the patients. We can’t do what we do without them.”
To complete the loop, Sica said, Angel Flight NE has more than 100 “Earth Angels” throughout the Northeast who donate their time and cars to drive patients between airports and medical facilities.
Herrick signed on as a volunteer pilot in 2004, when a fellow flier he was acquainted with died in a tragic plane crash in Florida.
“He went down with one of his twin daughters,” Herrick said. “I found out that he was an avid flier for Angel Flight. I’d had my license for three years and I thought I met the qualifications,” which require that pilots must be licensed and instrument flight rated and meet or exceed FAA requirements.
“It’s kind of a selfish reason we do these flights,” he said. “Every pilot will tell you that they like to fly. There are challenges to it, there are risks to take but it’s the enjoyment of taking to the air that drives us,” he said.
“You’re basically doing it for enjoyment and when you get to fly and they get to go where they need to go, win-win. I get to do what I enjoy doing and get to help somebody else out, which is part of my nature anyhow,” he said.
“I guess I’m an adrenaline seeker. That’s why I ride a motorcycle. I like that kind of challenge. I think it keeps you younger,” said Herrick, who is 54 and the father of two grown children.
Angel Flight pilots provide their services on their own time and on their own dime.
Herrick said that the costs associated with flying patients include fuel, oil, insurance, airport fees and sometimes airplane rental or mortgage costs, if the pilot involved doesn’t own the airplane.
He said his small aircraft consumes about 9 gallons of fuel for each hour of flying time at a cost of between $5.25 to $8 a gallon, depending where it is purchased.
Though Herrick typically flies 15 to 20 missions a year, he has flown as many as 34, when his time and finances allowed. “I sign up for what I’m available for. The Bangor Police Department has been understanding. They support their officers doing charitable work, they encourage it,” allowing Herrick to use vacation days for his Angel Flight missions.
His Angel Flight missions have taken him as far as New Haven, Conn.
“Some of [the missions] are short and some of them are long but every one is memorable for one reason or another. You know, with every one of these the individuals are what makes the flight unique or interesting,” he said.
Herrick says that the rewards far outweigh the costs connected with Angel Flight missions.
“It’s just that feeling of being able to do something nobody else can do for people,” he said.
As a police officer, “you see people in tragic accidents and who’ve been victimized by crime,” he said. “With Angel Flight, it’s not the same. You’re in a different role. Here, you’re recognized as help more. Law enforcement isn’t always recognized as being helpful.”
Herrick said the people he meets through Angel Flight are what keeps him going.
“You come to see a lot of spirit in them,” he said. “They have some debilitation, illness or injury and are at the lowest point in their life, and you have a chance to give them something out of what you have. And you see them appreciate it. You see their spirit and their willingness to fight. They’re going to try to beat it. People are very courageous at that point in their life so it’s a plus to see people like that, to get to know them.”
Earlier this month, Herrick flew a mission out of Boston. As it turned out, his airplane used to belong to the stepfather of the patient he was flying back to the Bar Harbor area.
“He had tried to get his pilot’s license and had spent many hours flying that airplane,” Herrick said. “It was a really kind of freaky moment there. It was huge. It was a big lift for him. He went from being real unhappy when I first met him to being thrilled to [fly] in that plane. We chatted about the plane, what had changed about it over the years.”
Another mission that moved Herrick involved a woman he flew out of Waterville.
“I found out that she’d been a volunteer [after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks]. She had gone to New York and volunteered to pick up body parts. She was a very courageous woman who was as healthy as she thought she could be before 9-11. After her exposure to [the toxins at ground zero] she came down with several different forms of cancer that permeated her entire body,” he said. “She had an unbelievable spirit. She was upbeat, happy,” despite the condition that ultimately took her life.
Herrick also tells the story of a little boy from Presque Isle en route to Boston whose Angel Flight was forced to divert due to a storm. Herrick stepped in and arranged for a motel room for the child, who was in a cast, and his mother and aunt. He completed the flight the next day.
“I put him on the airplane and I put a headset on him and I put on music and he started singing along,” Herrick said. “When you talk in the headset you can hear your own voice, so all of a sudden, he became a star and all the way up from Bangor to Presque Isle. He heard part of a song that went ‘ooh hoo’ and he kept repeating that all the way up. He was just a precious soul who had a physical deformity and a lot of challenges ahead of him. He was a good kid.”
Herrick and Sica said that Angel Flight sometimes flies “compassion missions,” which include providing transportation for military personnel and their family members and to those who need to get to a medical facility quickly to provide treatment consent or say goodbye to a person who is dying from an accident or illness.
In one such case, Herrick flew a southern Maine man to Presque Isle to visit his dying father. “To complicate matters, the [son, who was in his 60s] had an illness that he was dying of and he wasn’t allowed to travel or do things for very long. He needed special transportation to get to see his dad to say goodbye.”
A call for pilots
Sica said that there are about 50 Angel Flight volunteer pilots in Maine, which generates 30 to 35 percent of the Angel Flight requests in its nine-state Northeast region. The high demand for flights for Mainers is due to the fact that parts of Maine are relatively remote, and the people who live there can’t easily access the medical care they need.
“We do have a shortage of pilots up in Maine with the number and volume [of flights] that we’re doing out of that area, so we’re actively recruiting pilots to participate in our mission,” Sica said.
For more information about Angel Flight or to support its mission, visit www.angelflightne.org or call 800-549-9980.