LEESBURG — In a celebrity-studded event filled with movie stars, aviation legends and astronauts, the CEO and a pilot with Leesburg-based Angel Flight Southeast will receive one of the highest honors in Los Angeles on Friday.
Steve Purello, 47, has been selected as one of three recipients of the prestigious Endeavor Awards, a lifetime achievement honor, and he will be joined by a party of 13 – his wife, children, parents and some board members of Angel Flight Southeast – as he receives $15,000 to benefit the non-profit charity that provides air transportation to chronically ill children and adults.
“I am really honored,” Purello said. “The bigger picture is that this is not about me, but this will bring a lot of exposure to Angel Flight Southeast.”
Endeavor Award honorees are selected from pilots flying missions for one or several of the nearly 150 volunteer pilot organizations nationwide.
Purello is proud of Angel Flight’s network of about 650 pilots who volunteer their time, services and use their own personal planes to transport chronically ill passengers to their medical appointments when commercial flights are too costly or unavailable. The charity has its headquarters at Leesburg International Airport.
Purello has been flying with Angel Flight Southeast for nearly 20 years; he averages about 25 flight missions annually.
“I kiddingly say that I do it because I was a bad kid and I’m going to get some points to go to the other side, but it is incredibly rewarding,” he said. “This is a charity where you give back directly to someone and see the direct results of what you are doing.”
Angel Flight has provided transportation for patients who need to go a long distance for medical help for unusual diseases.
“A lot of these people need to fly 30, 40, 50 times to be able to get the care that they need and they wouldn’t be able to do it financially or health wise without Angel Flight,” he said, adding it’s fulfilling to help.
It’s having a higher purpose for flying,” Purello said.
Antonio Milanes has been an Angel Flight Southeast passenger for nearly a decade, and he praises how Purello has flown him from Miami to Gainesville and back.
“Steve Purello saved my life,” Milanes said in a press release. “I believe life can change in a matter of minutes, sometimes for the worst. An angel from Angel Flight Southeast was sent to me and my life was spared. I am eternally grateful.”
The Endeavor Award that Purello will receive recognize individual volunteer pilots whose aviation services go above and beyond expectations.
“We are fortunate in this country to have so many dedicated volunteer pilots who provide thousands of free flights every day to serve people and communities. The Endeavor Awards were created to honor volunteer pilots and provide support to the non-profit organizations that arrange their flights,” Mark Wolper, chair of the Endeavor Awards, added in the press release.
“Steve’s contribution to the people Angel Flight Southeast serves seems endless,” Angel Flight Southeast Vice Chairman Steve King said. “He is constantly working to raise money to help pay for fees and services that ensure our pilots can meet the demand for the approximately 3,000 passenger trips requested each year.”
Purello was noted for enhancing the operation efficiency of Angel Flight Southeast. Every dollar donated to the charity generates more than $10 of contributed services.
The $15,000 award money Purello will receive will go for the charity’s budget and for activities to recruit and train more pilots.
“Approximately one-third of our pilots are retired, which the other two-thirds take time from work. These are doctors, lawyers, business owners,” Purello said. “They take that one day off from work because these flights take place generally during the week. They become very committed to it and very passionate about it. They love to fly, so it is a good excuse to fly and to give back.”
He believes it’s vital for potential pilots to understand that it’s not trauma patients they transport.
“Pilots sometimes think it’s a car accident type of thing where they have to be there in a few hours, and it’s not,” the CEO said, while noting Angel Flight’s passengers are those who could die within a few months if they don’t get fights they need for medical care.
“These are chronic diseases that they have,” he said.
Some Lake County passengers are those who require surgeries or doctor visits with specialists in other states. Flights that require greater travel distances are often split into shorter segments with multiple pilots.
Angel Flight Southeast coordinates flights for people who live in Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
Purello first learned about Angel Flight when he was making frequent trips to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for dinner outings and enjoying his pilot’s license. He saw a brochure for the charity with a child on the cover.
“I realized that I could be doing something more with my license than just going to get dinner in Nantucket for the night,” Purello said.
The CEO aspires to raise awareness about his favorite charity.
“The goals are really to make sure that as many people who need our services are receiving it,” Purello said. “Our operations are pretty solid. We can handle the calls coming in, but we just know that so many people don’t know about us.”
Expected to be attending the awards gala are Academy Award nominee and Emmy Award-winning actor Greg Kinnear, five-time Space Shuttle astronaut Dr. Scott Parazynski and author James Fallows, who worked as President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter.
The other Endeavor Award recipients to be honored with Purello on Friday are John Billings with Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic and Richard Durden with LightHawk.