Bill Almon and Jason Simpson don’t think they’re doing anything selfless, using their own money and time to fly very sick people to get treatment.
Pilots, as a rule, are always looking for reasons to fly, they say. Plus, helping someone who can’t afford commercial air travel — or who can’t travel with large groups because of a compromised immune system — as both do through the nonprofit Angel Flight West organization, feels good.
“That’s just kind of how I’m wired,” said Simpson, a 45-year-old plant manager for Tree Top in Selah.
Almon, a 70-year-old Yakima attorney, is the same way. He downplays the notion that he’s doing anything heroic or, for that matter, extraordinary. He just figures that since he has the resources and skills, he may as well help out.
“Most of these folks who are in need of such a flight are unable to pay for fuel themselves,” he said. “The families we accept as passengers are very grateful.”
According to Cheri Cimmarrusti, Angel Flight West’s associate executive director, the average cost to a pilot each time he flies a “mission” for the organization is somewhere around $250 to $500. Including Almon and Simpson, there are 125 Angel Flight West pilots in Washington state, flying thousands of missions each year. Some do one or two. Others do 25 or 30. Bob Schaper of Seattle has flown 154 this year.
The local Angel Flight pilots, Almon and Simpson, have both done a few per year for more than a decade. That adds up to a significant donation, Cimmarrusti said.
“A lot of people have a picture of private pilots as rich fat-cats,” she said. “And that’s not the case. Many of these pilots are retired accountants or people who ran a mechanics shop or something.”
Simpson has a 5-year-old son and 8-month-old twin daughters he and his wife adopted this year. He had to sell his plane a few years back, he said, so now he rents planes to fly Angel Flight missions.
“If I have the means, then why not help people out?” he said.
One of those the program has helped is Aimee Lybbert of Yakima, whose 9-month-old son, Christian, was born with severe heterotaxy, a defect that caused his organs to develop abnormally. He needed heart surgery in October, the second of his young life. Lybbert found a doctor at Stanford University Hospital in California who was supposed to be the best at the sort of operation Christian needed. But because Christian has no spleen and is highly susceptible to infection, he couldn’t be cleared for commercial travel.
“If he gets a bacterial infection, he’ll get sepsis,” Lybbert said.
She heard about Angel Flight West in a health care forum on Facebook and applied for a flight. The day before the surgery was scheduled, a pilot volunteered. His name was Dale Lamberton, and he happened to be a cardiologist based in Vancouver, Wash.
“If you’re going to fly with a sick kid, that’s the man you want to fly with,” Lybbert said.
The return trip a few days later was split between three pilots, each of whom flew a short leg of the journey.
“The last pilot said something I had never thought of,” Lybbert said. “He said, ‘We love to fly, and in this economy, in these hard times, you can’t really justify a hobby like that. This gives it purpose.”
That’s a common motivating factor for Angel Flight West pilots, Cimmarrusti said. Many of them feel privileged to be able to fly, and they take on missions as a way of showing gratitude.
“They’re not really looking for credit or recognition,” she said.
That’s true of Simpson, who only reluctantly agreed to be interviewed for this story. And it’s true of Almon, former owner of Almon Commercial Realty, who has flown his six-passenger Cessna to and from locations all over the West for the organization.
“Pilots are always trying to find a reason to fly,” Almon said. “And if we can benefit someone else by doing it, that’s always a good excuse.”