By Christian Holtz
A system has been developed on an island in Washington, which has no hospital and is cut off from the mainland except for a ferry and single airstrip. A pregnant woman can call a pilot and ask him to fly her to a hospital when her contractions start, and they stay in close contact as she nears the big day. Or, if someone is injured and can’t wait for the ferry, a volunteer pilot can fly that person to the mainland.
A small group, the Mercy Pilots of Orcas Island, makes this system possible. The coordinator, Audrey Wells, is an extraordinary woman. She’s a cancer survivor who utilized the help of these pilots for cancer treatment. Wanting to join their ranks, she learned to fly relatively late in life. Fittingly, the plane she rents is a 1977 Piper Warrior.
When she was very young, Wells wanted to take up flying, but life kept getting in the way. First, her family was grief-stricken when her younger brother, a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor, died in an airplane accident.
“He was a crop duster and ran an airport,” she said. “One day he and the owner of an old Ryan trainer decided to check out the plane, to see if it was suitable for the flight school.”
Wells said it was a tandem model with a bad habit of stalling because of a relatively high stall speed.
“That’s what happened and they were killed,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s it; I can’t do this.’ I didn’t think either one of my parents could have dealt with it after the death of my brother. That put it off. Then, when I wound up living here, I thought, ‘I’m too old to start learning how to fly!'”
Wells has lived fulltime on Orcas Island for 17 years. You could say she’s always been an island girl, because she was born and raised on the big island of Hawaii. She and her husband visited the San Juan Archipelago for the first time 19 years ago.
“The plan was to come up here several times during the course of a year, in different seasons, to see what it would be like, and to find an island we liked,” she said.
Orcas was the first island they visited.
“The ferry ride was spectacular. After we landed, we were probably halfway between the ferry landing and the turnoff to Deer Harbor when I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m home,'” she recalled. “He said, ‘But you don’t know anything about this place!’ I told him I knew everything I needed to know and that I wanted to live here.”
When her husband asked, “What if I don’t want to live here?” Wells answer was, “Then you can come and visit.”
“I never had a place do that for me,” she said.
The next day, they visited a real estate office. When they were asked about their fantasy home, Wells replied that it would have “a mountain in the backyard and water in the front.”
“He showed us a piece of land that was smaller than I wanted, but it had the water in front and a view of Mt. Baker,” she said.
The couple made an offer on the property before heading to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
“We were on the next ferry out of there,” she said.
They also looked at Shaw Island, but found it a little too quiet. They ended up buying the first property they had considered.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Wells had a lumpectomy. Six weeks of radiation treatments were needed following the surgery.
“I knew these pilots and I even knew who coordinated them,” she said. “It was my eye doctor. I called him and asked what I needed to do to get flown for radiation for six weeks, and he said, ‘You talk to me.'”
That doctor became one of her pilots.
“He’d get the initial call and then hand off the coordinating to someone else,” she said. “He set it up so that I had a pilot and backup pilot for every day of the week.”
Wells was given the closely guarded pilot list, just in case her pilot couldn’t fly the next day. Soon she knew who to call and became involved in arranging backup pilots. It was during the course of these radiation runs that she decided she had to learn how to fly.
“It was just too much fun,” she said. “Flying five days a week, instead of just three or so times a year, changes your perspective.”
Her first lesson was at the end of July 2000. For her first practice, they flew to Skagit Regional Airport, so that she could learn how to steer with her feet on the long taxiways there.
“We don’t have nice, long taxiways here on the island,” she said. “There’s only one taxiway. Even though my instructor said the yoke is useless while taxiing, I kept trying to use it during that first session, to keep on the centerline.”
Wells said her relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration has been interesting.
“Cancer is a ‘disqualifying event.’ You read that and your heart stops,” she said. “Three months after surgery, I was given as clean a bill of health as possible. But it’s going to be an issue anywhere along the line.”
Wells passed her oral and practical exams and received her private certificate on May 9, 2001. That day she also officially became one of the Mercy Pilots.
“After meeting with the examiner on the ninth, I got home, called up the coordinator and said, ‘Put me on the list of pilots!'” she recalled.
Wells also joined the Orcas Aviation Association, a local aviation political action organization.
“It was the OAA that kind of took charge of this loose group of volunteer pilots,” said Wells.
The flights must follow certain guidelines. They have to be in accordance with visual flight rules and normally are within a 25-mile radius.
“We have pilots who will go to Boeing Field, so we do go to Seattle, but officially it’s a 25-mile radius,” she explained.
Typically Bellingham, Skagit and Anacortes are the destination airports. The group generally doesn’t fly from other islands.
“When I was a new pilot, we flew two people from Blakely Island, which has a paved strip,” said Wells. “These days hardly anyone lives year-round on Blakely, but in less than a year, two women there had to have radiation treatments. As a rule, we won’t do Waldron Island, unless that pilot is willing to go in on a grass field.”
She said she can’t take her rental plane on a grass strip.
“The rare times we’ve gotten a call from Waldron, they’ve had to come here to Orcas to make it practical,” she said. “They take a boat over and then we fly them.”
Wells has a core group of nine pilots who help with radiation runs, which involve flying a passenger five days a week for five to six weeks. For these flights, Wells will coordinate a pilot and backup pilot for each day. She also calls on other pilots who can’t commit to a schedule.
“When they’re available, they never say no, but I can’t call on them to do ‘rad runs’ because their work schedules are so erratic,” she said. “They can’t say, ‘Yes, I can go on Wednesdays for the next six weeks. I can block off from 12:30 to 4 p.m. on my schedule.’ For those situations, we try to get pilots to commit to all six weeks, if we can.”
She’ll also try to schedule herself as one of the pilots.
“I’m going to fly X amount of hours in a month, anyway,” she said. “I might go out and just mess around to keep my skills sharp, but I might as well be taking somebody.”
Presently, she flies two passengers a week. She recently began flying a retired airline pilot and a woman who receives radiation treatments at Sedro-Woolley.
“I’m her Monday pilot,” she said.
When Wells first became coordinator, she had to learn to be firm about flight rules. One woman wanted to be paired with a pilot who would fly by instrument flight rules and was also insistent on going to appointments in the morning, which often proves difficult due to weather conditions.
“She absolutely wouldn’t think of an afternoon appointment,” said Wells. “So we scheduled her in the afternoons. I scheduled myself for one of her days. Three of her days that I got were below minimums, so I wouldn’t take her.”
Wells said that now if someone refuses to accept an afternoon radiation appointment, she politely tells them she won’t be able to set them up with a pilot.
“We don’t very often get closed in on Orcas, but I can pretty much rely on Skagit being low to closed in, in the morning,” she said. “And Bellingham might be open very early, but then it kind of gets closed in until the afternoon.”
Afternoon radiation treatments also allow plenty of time for a passenger to take the ferry boat if a pilot has to scrub a flight because of weather.
“In the morning, there’s a time, which varies with the season–depending on the ferry schedule–when you have to make the ‘go or no go’ decision,” said Wells. In the case of my Friday guy, the ‘no go’ decision could be as late as 11 a.m., because there’s an 11:50 ferry, and he has priority loading. He can go down there and just get on.”
Mercy flights don’t usually work for chemotherapy patients, because chemotherapy requires weekly appointments over longer periods (months rather than weeks), and last for hours at a time.
“It may be just once a week, but that person will be at the center getting infused with chemo for anywhere from two to four hours,” Wells said. “It’s really not that much time, unless the pilot works for a living, and most of the pilots still do.”
Logistically, it may make better sense to involve two pilots–one for each leg–but having enough pilots available can be a problem.
“Something could be arranged, but most people don’t come to us for that,” said Wells. “Since it’s once a week, you combine your chemo run with your Costco run. No one ever goes off the island to do only one thing.”
Mercy flights are similar to those made by Angel Flight, whose mission is to arrange free air transportation in response to health care and other compelling human needs. However, Angel Flight pilots can list costs pertaining to each mission as tax deductions, due to the Angel Flight’s status as an IRS 501 (c)(3) organization. Those flying under the banner of Mercy Pilots don’t have this same incentive.
“You couldn’t pull enough teeth to get us to do a 501 (c)(3),” laughed Wells. “We do these flights because we’ve always done them.”
Wells’ organization has a small fuel fund that people can donate to, but it’s limited and certainly doesn’t cover all costs. There’s no standard donation amount expected from patients.
“Some people don’t donate anything, and some people are very generous,” Wells said. “If you don’t make a donation, nobody gets upset.'”
Some people have shown other ways to repay the pilots for their kindness. One patient had recently gone through a company layoff.
“After laying him off, the company kept him insured throughout his treatment,” she said. “But he didn’t have money because no income was coming in. Even with insurance, he had some pretty horrendous expenses. But he gave gifts to those pilots who flew with him.”
Wells exhibited a khaki ball cap with the words “Mercy Pilots of Orcas” embroidered across the front. Displaying an orca whale, the cap also bears her name, stitched across the back.
“Those who own a plane have their N-number embroidered on the front,” she said.
Wells is very fond of her gift and wears it regularly.
“I never wore a baseball cap in my life until I got this,” she said.
The cap also serves another purpose. On it, Wells has fastened several pins that signify her involvement in aviation, including those from the FAA WINGS program, the Ninety-Nines and AOPA. When it comes to her long-ago dream of flying, life is definitely no longer getting in her way.