Why Angels have wings

We pilots need an excuse to fly. I don’t know why, flying is fun. We should just be able to say, “Hey I’m going flying because it brings me joy,” but instead we always make up “reasons” to take wing.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the infamous $100 hamburger. Everyone in aviation knows what a $100 hamburger is. It’s an excuse to fly. In this case, the excuse is that you have to take your friends to a neighboring airport for a “great” meal you just can’t get at home. Of course, it’s nonsense. The burger is generally no better—and sometimes far worse—than you can get down the street, and the commuting cost really adds to the price (hence the name).

It’s just an excuse to fly.

But during the last few years a new kind of excuse to fly has blossomed, and it’s one that benefits society at the same time that it serves our need for an excuse to fly. Volunteer pilots, flying general aviation airplanes at their own expense, have flown thousands of mercy missions. Now, I’m not talking about flying vaccines in the African bush to help out mankind (although I’d jump on that bandwagon in two seconds, if I could). Instead, every day, all kinds of domestic mercy missions are flown right here at home. In our own backyard.

Through dozens of organizations, general aviation pilots have saved baby sea turtles, prevented pound pups from being euthanized by transporting them to new owners in other states, mapped environmental changes, and more. But dearest to my heart, even though I’ve never worked with them (for reasons I’ll share in a moment), is Angel Flight. Our home state, New Mexico, is served by two overlapping “chapters” of the loose Angel Flight network. We have Angel Flight West and Angel Flight South Central, but they work together on a single mission: Helping sick people who have transportation issues get to where they need to go to receive medical treatment. Or, as their promotional refrigerator magnet more elegantly puts it: “Half the cure is getting there.”

That’s no joke.

Most people don’t know this, but transportation to medical treatment is a huge barrier right here in the US of A. Health insurance might cover chemo treatments, but many times won’t help get the patient to the cancer center. That’s where Angel Flight comes in, and the Angel Flight mission is dear to my heart because I have a secret: I’m not just an aviation journalist. I also work three days a week in a clinical role for a non-profit community health center in a very poor part of my state. I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of transportation impacts health. People die, right here in this great country, because they can’t “get there.” I once trained a young medical student who wanted to serve in the Third World. I told her she didn’t need a Passport. There are third-world countries right here in New Mexico, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama…

So you can see why I’d be eager to fly Angel flights. So how come I’m not doing it? Because, ironically, I myself am too “sick” to combine my love of flight, my family airplane, and my not inconsiderable knowledge of medicine. The various Angel Flights require their volunteer pilots to have a medical certificate, and I don’t have one, for two reasons.

First, the Plane Tales Plane is a Legacy Light Sport plane. She doesn’t require a medical to fly, just a pilot’s license and a valid driver’s license. And second, as I got older I developed one of those medical conditions that—while it’s still perfectly possible to get a medical with—ends up adding cost and time to the process. So bottom line, as it’s a hassle to get a medical and I don’t need one to fly the family plane, I simply haven’t bothered with it.

Still, while I can’t fly missions of mercy for Angel Flight, when I read about Angel Flight’s second annual fly-in in Albuquerque, it got me thinking that there might be some other role for me to play to help their cause. I thought maybe I could put my pen to work in their service. So that was my excuse for flying to the Big City. Yeah. According to my logbook, I flew a three-point-four-hour round trip to do what a 30-second email could have accomplished.

Or maybe not.

Because something unexpected happened at the airport.

While the chief meteorologist from the local Center was showing slides of microbursts, I sought out Angel Flight West executive director Josh Olson, who’d come out from California for the fly-in. I outlined my situation, and during our brief chat he told me that Angel Flight was actually good on pilots, and also good on publicity. But he bemoaned the fact that the real weak link was on the medical side, where the organization seemed to be having a hard time getting the word out to doctors about the availability of the service and the volunteer pilots.

Now, what’s odd about Josh’s comment is that I was in my secret identity mode. Past experience has taught me that while there are lots of pilots with all kinds of health challenges, it’s not something that we pilots will collectively admit to. Macho pilot “culture” prohibits it, and when it sometimes gets out that I don’t have the “Right Stuff” medically, I’ve found that I’m treated like a leper. The actual fact is that, because I have a chronic health condition that requires some attention, I’m actually healthier than I was back in the day when I had a top-of-the line 1st Class Medical Certificate. In fact, I bet that I’m in waaaaaaay better health than the guys who treat me like a leper. Still, I don’t enjoy being treated that way, so I’ve learned to keep a low profile and try to separate my two worlds. I never let on about my health condition or my healthcare profession in flying circles, and I don’t generally talk about flying in my health circles. So Josh had no clue that I work in medicine when he shared his problem with me.

I can only assume that an Angel whispered in his ear.

I debated internally for a moment, then the better angels of my nature took over and I “came out of the closet” about my connections in the world beyond the hangar, runway, and tower. My connections to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies.

“Funny you should mention that, because being an aviation journalist is only part of what I do for a living…”


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