BETHEL — Two local pilots have combined to fly nearly 70 missions to transport Maine people with serious illnesses to out-of-state hospitals, where they can get the treatment they need.
Tony Milligan and Dr. John Mason are volunteer pilots with ‘Angel Flight Northeast,’ an organization that connects available pilots with patients who, because of their condition or finances, are unable to ride by car or pay for transportation to hospitals. Milligan has flown 39 trips in the past 10 years (some flights are repeats with the same patients). He was introduced to the program by Mason, who has flown about 30 trips.
Milligan said he was in training for instrument-rated flying when Mason sent him home with a video to watch about Angel Flight.
‘Within a couple of minutes both my wife and I were on the couch crying our eyes out,’ said Milligan.
They watched the story of a little girl from Rockland, Maine, who had been badly burned in a fire. She was taken on hundreds of flights to Boston for treatment, said Milligan, never with any charge, thanks to Angel Flight.
‘She was always so positive and upbeat,’ Milligan said of the child, who served as a spokesperson for the program, he said.
‘The very next day I was on the phone to volunteer,’ he said.
Angel Flight requires pilots to be able to fly with instruments for safety and flexibility reasons, said Milligan. About a year later, after he had completed that training, he went with Mason on a flight bringing a teenage girl and her mother from Waterville to Boston.
The Angel Flight pilots get special treatment from air traffic controllers, Milligan said – a fact that is very helpful particularly at Logan Airport, where the tiny AF planes must compete with 747s and other large jets.
‘We have a special call sign. It gives us priority handling, and they will fit us in. We’d have to circle otherwise,’ he said.
On that first landing in Boston with Mason, Milligan said, ‘We heard the controller instruct a number of 747s and 757s and the like to ‘slow their approach speed to the slowest possible’ to allow for spacing for an Angel Flight Cessna 182 inbound for landing.’ Then the controller told Mason, ‘Angel Flight 443, you are cleared to land Runway 4-left, keep your speed up as high as possible all the way to the runway, as I have you between two 747s.’
‘We were thankful for the priority handling,’ said Milligan.
Milligan’s own first flight, in his Cessna 172, took place in October of 2005, when he flew a young woman from New Hampshire to Bedford, Mass. for cancer treatment. Since then he’s logged 12,700 miles.
Only two of his flights have actually been out of Bethel. Most involve flying to another part of Maine to pick up the patient, and then heading south to Massachusetts.
Pilots find people who need flights on a secure website, Milligan said, and there are usually between 80 to 100 requests displayed at a time for the Northeast. The pilots schedule flights according to what their work schedules allow. Sometimes two pilots will share legs of a flight to accommodate everyone’s schedule. And if the destination airport is a distance from the hospital, ‘Earth Angels’ – volunteer car drivers will meet the patient to go the rest of the way.
Milligan remembers a woman in her 60s from central Maine who was a favorite of pilots. A cancer patient, ‘she was in demand,’ said Milligan. ‘She was such a pleasure.’
He said she was a retired 911 dispatcher from the Boston area who, after retiring, led a cadaver dog team. After Sept. 11, 2001, the team went to the World Trade Center site to help look for bodies in the rubble that was later found to have generated carcinogenic dust. ‘They all got cancer,’ said Milligan. ‘She was the last surviving member.’
‘One thing that never left me was that she always had a smile,’ he said, even though she usually looked tired and sick. ‘We would always try to find the smoothest air.’
Milligan remembers her saying, ‘I could be angry and join the lawsuits. Or I could just go fishing. I decided to go fishing.” He said many patients share their medical stories during a flight.
‘It seems like there’s something special about every flight. They’re so grateful, and they’re often willing to tell their story,’ he said.
Mason said he volunteered for Angel Flight about a decade ago because ‘it seemed like a nice way to give back since I was lucky enough to have a plane. I have always flown Maine residents, with the exception of one little girl from Berlin with brain cancer, who I took to Boston several times. I also flew Bethel residents several times.
‘Most of my approximately 30 flights either start or end at Logan. Many pilots don’t feel very comfortable flying into that airspace, so there is always a need for flights to there.
‘As a CFII, I was also able to train Tony and Randy Autrey for their instrument ratings. Randy’s plane isn’t instrument certified so it can’t be used for AF, but he has served as a copilot on many flights with both Tony and me.’
Milligan said the majority of the Northeast flights are from Maine, because it is such a large, spread-out rural state. Many flights pick up patients in Presque Isle and Fort Kent.
Pilots must pay their own expenses on Angel Flights, including fuel. To help finance the flights, the program has a fuel reimbursement program under which people may donate money to defray fuel costs for individual pilots or to the fund in general.
Milligan said Bethel Airport pilots are considering holding a scenic flight event day this year to help raise money for the program.
For more about Angel Flight, go to www.angelflightne.org.