“Flying private,” being chauffered in your own airplane that goes where you want it to, when you need to get there, is a privilege reserved for the upper economic stratum of society.
But the “one percent” shares this distinction with a special class of passengers — the patients who are flown for treatments or transplants by the pilots of Angel Flight. For these flyers, being able to hop on to a plane at a moment’s notice isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
“We have three dozen people waiting for kidneys,” said Steve Purello, CEO of Angel Flight Southeast, the Leesburg, Florida-based wing of the national Angel Flight network. “We don’t know when that call will come. Usually, it’s in the middle of the night — you can imagine why.”
Organs become available upon the death of the donor, and then getting the recipient to wherever the kidney, heart or liver is waiting is a race against the clock. “On average, we have a three-hour window to get the patient to the organ,” said Purello.
This is why pilots such as Marc Miller are a godsend to Angel Flight, and the patients they serve. Miller, an Estero resident who flies out of Page Field in Fort Myers, was recently honored at a dinner in West Palm Beach as the Southwest Florida Angel Flight Pilot of the Year.
“We wake them up in the middle of a perfectly good sleep. There’s no other way to do it. There’s no time to drive, even if the patients could, and there are no commercial flights at that hour,” said Purello, and as a 19-year volunteer Angel Flight pilot himself, he knows. “Marc has been one of the heavy lifters. He’s a transplant pilot, and he flies a lot of missions.” Often, the same patients require multiple treatments, which leads to repeat flights. Miller, who has been flying Angel Flight missions for three years, estimates he has made about 80 flights for Angel Flights Southeast, and also flies for Angel Flight Central during the summer months, out of his northern home in Minnesota.
His wife Judy accompanies him on his Angel Flights, “no, not as a flight attendant,” he said. “She’s my copilot, my mission assistant.” They fly a twin-engine six-seat Piper Aztec, a plane that gives more room and more range for flights. While Angel Flight Southeast is a registered nonprofit charity, the pilots cover all the costs of their missions, including the aircraft and the fuel.
“Our pilots provide 90 percent of our donations,” said Purello. Miller also flies for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, including search and rescue, coastal patrol and “logistics missions,” such as delivering an admiral to a base in Florida from Newport News, Virginia.
“All of the Angel Flight missions have a special dimension,” said Miller. “One that sticks in my mind was a 13-month-old girl. We picked her up in Tampa, and took her down to Miami. She was on her second liver transplant,” traveling with family.
“I get to know some of them. I don’t pry, but I let them talk as much as they are comfortable with. One gentleman, retired from the Air Force, had brain cancer. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. Another retired military guy was going for specialized rehab after losing his sight.”
Miller is retired himself, after 37 years with 3M. He has been flying since 1971, and got his pilot’s license in 1978.
“I had a couple of years of golf and fishing, and realized I needed something more intellectually stimulating. I wanted to fly with a purpose. I consider myself very fortunate in life, and I see Angel Flights as a way I can give back in some small way.”
Greg Frost of Naples is another Southwest Florida Angel Flights pilot who was up for the Pilot of the Year award. He flies out of Page Field as part of a flying club that has three aircraft, and also flies Angel Flight missions during the summer in Ohio.
“Most of these people have severe health issues, often life-threatening. I remember one 2-year-old girl. She had spent 18 months of her life in the hospital,” said Frost. “We all think we have problems. This helps put things in perspective. Can you imagine the stress on the family going through life, doing your job and then add all that?
“I love to fly — this gives me a destination, and allows me to help these people.”
A third local pilot, Brian Lucas, won the Rookie Pilot of the Year honor (rookie with Angel Flight, not behind the controls), but was not able to attend the awards dinner.
Angel Flight Southeast “care traffic controllers” coordinate approximately 3,000 flights each year, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To learn more, volunteer or support the work of Angel Flight Southeast, call 352-326-0761 or go online to www.angelflightSE.org.