By Fred “Crash” Blechman
Gabriel needed help. Married, with two children, he had just celebrated his 24th birthday. He required a surgical procedure that only a surgical oncologist could perform. For the surgery, he would need to go to the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, a two-and-a-half hour drive from his home in Santa Maria, Calif., and he lacked transportation.
Through his church, Gabriel was referred to the Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria. He made contact with Kenda Kellawan, the social worker at the Marian Cancer Center. Kellawan immediately thought of Angel Flight West, an organization that would fly Gabriel to Los Angeles, at no cost.
Angel Flight West is one of seven autonomous regional members that make up Angel Flight America. This national network utilizes private planes to transport patients and their families to hospitals for medical evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. Normally, this free service is provided for chronically ill people who require multiple treatments at a facility that would be difficult for them to access. Angel Flight America also provides free flights in the event of a national crisis or a compelling human need, such as the relocation of Hurricane Katrina victims.
Angel Flight ground and pilot volunteers donate their time, talents and airplanes to ensure free transportation for children and adults in need of the organization’s services. Financial donations help cover the costs to coordinate missions and reach as many patients as possible with the offering of hope and healing.
To qualify for an Angel Flight, patients must be medically stable and able to fly in a non-pressurized plane.
“They have to be ambulatory and without any seizure disorders,” explained Kellawan. “Patients must have a financial need as verified by a social worker like myself, or a discharge planner, clergy person or doctor. Or they may live in a remote area without any access to commercial airports, or may not have anyone to drive them to another center for follow-up treatment.”
Gabriel recently qualified for an Angel Flight after he was diagnosed with gastric cancer and required follow-up treatment at UCLA. Steve Danz, Angel Flight West’s “Distinguished Pilot of the Year” for the last three years, flew Gabriel and his good friend, Arnie, from Santa Maria Airport to Van Nuys, in his twin-turboprop Cessna 340. At Van Nuys Airport, Gabriel and Arnie took a taxi to UCLA, also free of charge. Later in the day, another Angel Flight West plane and pilot flew the two men back to Santa Maria.
“We’re really grateful for this kind of organization to help our patients,” said Kellawan, who’s been doing social work at the cancer center for 10 years. “I know it’s a compassionate organization. Mr. Danz, who flew Gabriel today, said he did 75 missions so far this year. He’s totally dedicated and committed to this type of work.”
Danz had another flight scheduled after leaving Gabriel and Arnie at Van Nuys Airport.
“This afternoon we’re going up to Fresno to pick up a Vietnam veteran who has been diagnosed with Agent Orange-related illnesses,” he said. “We’re flying him and his wife to their home in Yucca Valley. He’s flown probably 50 times with us!”
A staff of about half-dozen full-time schedulers works at Angel Flight West’s Santa Monica office, which covers 11 western states.
“Ninety-eight percent of our pilots are website-current,” he said. “We check in on the Angel Flight West website (www.angelflight.org), where members list the day’s flights. The origin, destination and mileage of each flight is listed. The schedule also provides combined weight of passengers and baggage for each flight, information necessary for pilots with single engine planes. The homepage also provides lots of information to help recruit prospective pilots.”
When potential transplant recipients receive last-minute notice that an organ is available for them, Angel Flight on-call pilots are ready, in most regions, to fly patients at any time, day or night, delivering them within hours to distant medical facilities. Angel Flight also transports precious cargo such as organs, blood, tissue and medical supplies. Many such missions were provided in the days following 9/11.
Danz said that benefactors chartered entire 737s and 727s to relocate Katrina victims to San Diego.
“We would then redistribute the folks from there,” he said. “We transported lots of babies. Everyone seemed to have a lap-child. My recollection on those trips is that they were all sleeping.”
Today, an Angel Flight takes off almost every 30 minutes. More than 5,000 private pilot volunteers from all 50 states proudly fly under the banner of the nonprofit organization. In 2003 alone, the seven regional members of Angel Flight America provided more than 17,000 flights for children and adults. With support from thousands of compassionate and caring people–pilots, ground volunteers (Earth Angels), mission coordinators, donors and the media–Angel Flight America has become the largest charitable air carrier in America.
The seven operating entities are Angel Flight Northeast, Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, Angel Flight Southeast, Angel Flight South Central, Angel Flight Central, Angel Flight West and Mercy Medical.
For more information on how to donate or how to become a volunteer, visit