Angel Flight West

This piece originally ran in the March 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

According to the National Conference of State
Legislatures, more than 3 million Americans miss or delay medical care because
they lack appropriate transportation to their appointments.

Angel Flight West volunteer pilots fly an average of 10 missions every day of the year to transport patients with serious medical conditions at no cost. These pilots are the unsung heroes who volunteer their time and money with a single mission of lowering the number of Americans without medical transportation.

Angel Flight West’s network of 1,400-plus pilots
throughout the 13 western states donate their aircraft, piloting skills, and
all flying costs to help families in need, enabling them to receive vital
treatment that might otherwise be inaccessible because of financial, medical,
or geographic limitations.

In 2019, Angel Flight West pilots flew more than 4,500
flights helping patients in need.

Richard Beattie, EAA Lifetime 536575 and EAA board
member, has been flying Angel Flight missions for four years now.

Richard said right before he retired, he had been
thinking about how he wanted to give back in some way, and yet somehow combine
his love of flight. When he discovered that his next-door neighbor was a
volunteer pilot for Angel Flight West, he gathered as much information as he
could and decided volunteering for the company was the perfect fit for him.

“It’s a great company with a great mission,” Richard
said. “Insurance companies, in general, under the health care coverage, will
typically cover for the treatment, but not the travel,” Richard said. “This
country is so vast that it can easily be an eight-hour, one-way journey that
you have to make every two weeks. In many cases, these people don’t have the
money to travel that frequently for treatment, and it puts a real strain on
their finances.”

In August, I had the opportunity to fly along as a
passenger on one of Richard’s missions. The mission was to fly two young girls
home to Oregon from an Angel Flight West sponsored camp in Washington.

Photo by Christina Basken.

Angel Flight West goes beyond transporting patients to
medical appointments. It supports the transportation of patients to special
camps and provides compassion flights for family members to be able to visit
with patients who otherwise would not be able to afford the visit.

Richard and I met up with two young girls, Lorena and
Mimi, at the Corporate Air Center in Burlington, Washington, to take them home
from nearby Camp Korey. Camp Korey is just one of the camp programs that Angel
Flight West supports.

Camp Korey program manager Nichol Ellis said the camp
is for kids with medical conditions who would most likely not have been
accepted to a traditional camp setting. The camps allow for kids to have the
experience of camp with peers who share stories similar to theirs.

“In order to get campers from farther away, Angel
Flights are the only way that we would be able to give campers this opportunity
and this experience,” Nichol said. “If they didn’t have that, they wouldn’t be
able to have the amazing opportunity to come to camp and be around friends and
people that look, and sound, and feel like they do, so it’s so vital.”

When Lorena and Mimi walked into the Corporate Air
Center, I saw nothing but pure joy and happiness spread across their faces as
they giggled and shared their special camp memories with one another. Lorena
and Mimi attended a camp specifically for young kids and teenagers afflicted
with achondroplasia.

According to the National Institutes of Health, achondroplasia,
otherwise known as dwarfism, is a disorder of bone growth that prevents the
changing of cartilage to bone. Achondroplasia, caused by mutations in the FGFR3
gene, can cause serious health complications such as interruption of breathing,
recurrent ear infections, exaggerated inward curve of the lumbar spine, spinal
stenosis, and hydrocephalus.

Mimi, 13, said Angel Flight West has had a huge impact
on her life.

“It’s really cool to me because Portland, it’s
sometimes even a five-hour drive to get to the camp that we’re going to, and so
most parents won’t want to do it,” Mimi said. “It’s been really cool because it’s
made it easier for my family to get to camp.”

Lorena, 12, said if it weren’t for Angel Flight West,
she wouldn’t have been able to make friends at Camp Korey.

“I think it’s helped me a lot with talking to people
because a lot of people would judge someone by what they look like, and so that’s
the first thing that you do when you meet someone new,” Lorena said.

When it came time to load up Richard’s plane and have
the girls say their goodbyes to their camp leaders, tears rolled down the faces
of the campers and leaders as they hugged each other. As Richard and I stood by
quietly waiting, we exchanged a look and smiled; it was a look of warmth and

Photo by Christina Basken.

On the way to Portland, I felt an immense amount of
gratitude for the Angel Flight West volunteers as I would occasionally glance
back at the girls and see the excitement on their faces as they looked out the

As we settled in for the flight, the girls pulled out cards they received from other campers. Even though I could not hear the girls, I could tell they were reminiscing about wonderful memories as smiles spread across their faces as they read.

When we landed in Portland, I saw Lorena and Mimi’s
family members excitedly waiting for them to get off the airplane.

Mimi’s mother, Debbie Plawner, said the one-week camp
experience gives her daughter confidence, a sense of identity, and well-being
throughout the whole year.

“The first year we did drive up, but it was a closer location,
and since they’ve moved even further away from our home, it’s really difficult
for me to imagine how she would be able to have this experience without Angel
Flight West,” Debbie said. “So, I’m just so grateful that she has the access
that Angel Flight provides so that she can have the strength year-round that it
ultimately supports giving her.”

Richard said signing up for a mission is easy to do
from a pilot’s perspective.

“There are several different compassion flight
organizations across the United States. I think the most well organized is
Angel Flight West by far,” Richard said. “We can just go and pick a date, pick
a route, and there’s a list of the patients who need to fly and what the issue
is. Then you select it, and if nobody else has selected it, usually you get
allocated in. It’s all done over email, and then you get your flight
information and the passenger information. You contact the passenger beforehand,
and then you arrange to meet at a certain time; you know what time the flight
leg is going to be and off you go.”

Angel Flight West development director Mary Hunter said
pilots can log on to the Angel Flight West website or use the app to sign up
for flights.

“We have our own database software that Angel Flight
West developed, but we share that intelligence with everybody for free so it’s
an open-source platform that everybody uses,” Mary said. “If you’re in a
different area and you’re signed up with another Angel Flight but if you move
or if you’re traveling through another area and you want to pick up another
mission, then you log in to this platform where you can see all the missions

“We have a coordination team of five people that are on
the phone with the pilots and the passengers or other organizations and are
connecting everybody and making sure the plans are all set,”she said. “It’s
still on the pilots, but we’ll reach out to the patient even before the flight
just to check in.”

Mary said Angel Flight West receives transportation
requests from nurses, doctors, social workers, or from the family of the
patient, and 30 percent of the requests are for child passengers.

“We’ll receive all their information, ask them when
their appointment is, we ask them to give us at least five days’ notice, but
sometimes we can do turnarounds in a day,”she said. “Once we have that
information in, which includes their weight and very minimal information about
their condition, we’ll put all that information into a platform we call VPOIDS,
which stands for volunteer pilot operation information database system.”

Pilots Helping Pilots

Richard said it is incredibly rewarding to be part of
the Angel Flight experience when he constantly sees other pilots and nonpilots
stepping up to help out those in need “who either can’t afford it or it’s too
stressful of a journey to do so frequently.”

Richard saw a true testament of this during a mission
in the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest.

“When I flew to the airport, I wasn’t happy with the
potential short takeoff over trees,” Richard said. “I did a low approach and
decided that I wasn’t able.Although I could have landed, I was uncomfortable
departing with a patient on a short runway with tall trees at the end. I used
my cellphone while flying overhead to call the patient, and she’s there with
her husband on the ground waiting for me, and I say, ‘I can land, but I’m not
comfortable taking off. Can you take a ferry from Lopez Island to San Juan and
to Friday Harbor, and I’ll land there and pick you up?’”

Richard nervously flew in circles overhead the airport
while waiting for his patient to call him back.

“Meanwhile, I’m on a common frequency, and I hear a
helicopter pilot who has just left Friday Harbor headed due east towards
Anacortes, and I think I’ll give him a call in the air,” Richard said. “I
called him in the air, and I said, ‘Do you want to do a favor?’ He said, ‘What
do you need?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have an Angel Flight patient on the ground
at the airport below us, and I’m not prepared to land because the runway is too
short because of the trees. Would you land there and pick this patient up and
take her in your helicopter to Friday Harbor? I’ll go, then wait for you to
arrive.’ And so he said, ‘Sure, I’ll happily do that.’”

Richard said the entire aviation community has been
very supportive of Angel Flight missions. Controllers will give Angel Flight
pilots the priority, and FBOs will oftentimes waive the ramp fees. In addition,
Phillips 66 will give pilots who buy their fuel a dollar per gallon off when
they fly a mission.

Tim Lewis, owner and manager of Corporate Air Center in
Burlington, Washington, and Angel Flight West volunteer pilot, helps other
volunteer pilots like Richard by donating his fuel when they do a mission.

“I donate the fuel to pilots who come in and are flying
an Angel Flight mission,” Tim said. “I also donate my pilot services. I do the
Angel Flights that are a little farther because sometimes they’re relayed.”

For example, they’ll start in Montana and the patients
might be on three different little airplanes.

“If you can imagine, that’s kind of stressful,” Tim
said. “So, what we’ll do is we’ll take the jet and bring them down and do it
one trip, eliminating the need for relays.”

Tim has flown missions to San Jose, California, for
heart transplants and lung transplants and said it’s the most rewarding

“When we’re flying them, they forget that they’re
special and they’re sick,” Tim said. “And, of course, most of the time they’ll
have a parent with them and it’s just a relief for them that they can see how
happy the child is, and it just feels good at the end of the day.”

Experience a Mission From the Passenger Seat

Another great program through Angel Flight West is
mission assistance. If a pilot is thinking about becoming a volunteer for the
organization but is on the fence, that person can sign up to ride along with
another pilot.

“Once you’ve done that, you go, ‘Oh, okay, I got to see
how it works now,’” Richard said. “Because a lot of people are afraid to touch
it because it’s strange. They’ll say,‘We’ve never done this before and it
sounds interesting.’ So it’s a wonderful way to just get people in the airplane
and do a short fly on the mission and then come back after and show them that
they can easily do this, too.”

Mary Hunter said that volunteer pilots are never
expected to fly a mission in bad weather conditions.

“If it’s a weather issue, we have Alaska Airlines to
help us out,” Mary said. “They’ve been our partner for 16 years. They are our
biggest commercial partner, and they give us about a million dollars every
year, so that equates to about a thousand round-trip tickets that we can give
to our passengers if, for some reason, we can’t find them a flight or our pilot
cancels due to weather or maintenance or something like that,” Mary said.

Richard said Angel Flight West gives pilots another
meaningful reason to fly.

“The tears are often of joy, not sadness,” Richard said. “Particularly the parents when there are young kids and you’ve just taken them on an hour-and-a-half to two-hour flight that otherwise would have taken them up to eight hours driving. They’re under a lot of stress, and they have those tears of joy when you let them out of the airplane when we get to the final destination. It pulls at your heartstrings a little bit, even big, strong, tough pilots that we all like to be.”

Photo by Christina Basken.

How to Become Command Pilot


  • 18 years of age or older with 250 hours’ pilot-in-command time.
  • Current medical, including BasicMed.
  • Current insurance and certified aircraft if flying human passengers.

Full qualifications can be found here.

Next Steps:

Anyone can join to volunteer, whether a pilot or not, here. Angel Flight
organizations are regional. If you don’t fly in the western half of the United
States, Angel Flight West will refer your application to the appropriate part
of the country. For a full listing of public benefit flying volunteer pilot
groups, please visit

I’m interested and would like to explore more. What are
the next steps?

1. Join the Angel Flight organization and its pilots
(many of whom are EAA members) currently flying in your region of the United

2. Consider flying your first mission by signing up as
a mission assistant and accompanying a command pilot so you can see how it all

Angel Flight West Executive Director Josh Olson

“For pilots, first of all, anyone can volunteer. I started volunteering before I even had my pilot certificate.

To fly as a command pilot, the left seat for us, you
have to have a minimum of 250 hours, and there’s some currency stuff with that.
You have to be 18 or older, and have 250 pilot-in-command (PIC) hours,
including 75 hours’ cross-country. That 250 PIC can be waived if you have your
commercial certificate. You have to have a medical, and a basic medical

Then, the currency stuff, you have to have a flight
review within the last 24 months. If you have your instrument rating, that’s
not required. Then, for human transport, it’s certified aircraft only. You can
be an owner or renter. If you are flying an experimental aircraft, we have
blood and tissue missions and service animals that you could fly. Then
insurance. We require a minimum level of $500,000 liability with a minimum per
seat of $100,000.

We also have an orientation process that new pilots
will go through, which is really telling them how the system works. Orientation
takes about an hour, but you can do it in stages online. Then you can start
volunteering for flights.

We have an online database and an app that lists all the available flights. You can log in there and look at those anytime you want. A couple of times a week, we have an automated email that sends available flights that are close or within the path of your home base. This doesn’t happen often, but in some cases you’ll get a call, text, or email directly from one of our coordination team members asking for help on a specific date.”

FAA’s Ruling on Pilot Liability

Josh said pilots are protected under the FAA’s ruling
on pilot’s liability when flying charitable medical flights.

“All volunteer pilots are protected in any event that any
kind of accident that may happen during a volunteer flight that is transporting
people to and from medical treatments,” Josh said. “So any Angel Flight
mission, the volunteer pilot’s protected there.”

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