Angel Flight volunteer pilots take children for non-emergency hospital appointments, hundreds of miles from home, for no charge
Imagine a child, stricken with leukemia, who needs to travel to a hospital hundreds of miles away for treatment.
Sierra Bingham, 10, disembarks from a plane at the Baker City Municipal Airport Saturday. Bingham, who had a heart transplant four years ago, was returning from a checkup at a hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. She was folwn free of charge by Angel Flight pilots Joe and Rosemary Pelissier. (Baker City Herald/Russell Vineyard)
Now imagine that she needs to do this as often as twice a week.
The cost for each round-trip could top $100 for fuel alone.
But what if an angel offered this child a free ride?
An angel disguised as a single-engine airplane.
The idea isn’t unheard of.
It isn’t even uncommon.
In 2006 Sierra Bingham, then 6, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. The condition caused the Haines girl’s heart to grow too fast, weakening that vital organ.She needed a new heart.
Several of her other organs were beginning to fail. Sierra’s doctors planned to put her on an artificial heart.
But before they could do so, a human donor heart became available.
The hospital where Sierra would receive her new heart is Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
That’s a 12-hour drive from Haines.
Sierra got her new heart.
But ever since she has flown to Palo Alto once every two months for post-operation checkups.
The trips were costing her family more in travel expenses than in medical bills.
But Sierra’s father, Jason Bingham, said Palo Alto was their only option.
“It’s the closest one our insurance would cover,” he said.
Because Sierra’s appointments were scheduled only a month away, getting a cheaper flight was close to impossible. That isn’t taking into account problems with transportation to and from Boise to catch the flights.
But then last year a social worker in Palo Alto informed the Binghams of Angel Flight West, a nonprofit organization geared to help people with needs such as theirs.
The pilots who donate their time and aircraft to Angel Flight fly patients such as Sierra at no cost.
“I can’t believe how much this has saved our bacon,” Jason Bingham said.
On Thursday, Sierra and her mother, Stacy, left on an Angel Flight for a post-operation checkup. She was flown by pilots Joe and Rosemary Pelissier from Hillsboro.
The total flight time was four hours.
Rosemary is the Oregon Wing Leader and coordinator of Oregon Angel Flights.
The two-legged trip consisted of a 90-minute flight to Klamath Falls, where Sierra and Stacy changed to another plane for the remainder of the trip.
Angel Flight West was founded in 1983 by a group of pilots in Santa Monica, Calif., who wanted to use their hobby to help people in need.
At first the pilots joined the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Medical Support Flight Team. In 1986, the group decided to go solo with its operation and founded Angel Flight West.
As of 2009, Angel Flight West had more than 1,900 volunteer pilots in 13 states.
In Oregon, there are 80 volunteers. Some are pilots, and others play support roles for travelers, including helping them get on and off planes and providing ground transportation.
Since 1986, Angel Flight West has flown more than 40,000 missions.
Total cost for these missions: more than $3 million.
The total cost for patients such as Sierra: zero.
Jake Jacobs of Baker City, a pilot and coordinator for Angel Flight in Eastern Oregon, said the pilots pay for the cost of fuel, time and planes to help.
“The first question everyone asks is what’s the catch?” Jacobs said. “There is none. We are simply pilots who love to fly, using our hobby to do good works.
“Helping a patient is much more rewarding than the $100 hamburger flight. Pilots are always looking for an excuse to fly and flying a mission is one of the most rewarding reasons,” he said.
Joe Pelissier said: “This is so rewarding for the pilots. It’s one thing to donate money to charity and never see where it goes, it’s another to actually see your donation in action.”
The Oregon chapter flies an average of 100 missions a year. In 2009 members flew 159.
So far in 2010 they have flown 24.
Rosemary Pelissier said, “Truth be told, the pilots just want to fly, and this is the most rewarding way for them to do it.”
Jacobs said the Angel Flights are for non-emergency and non-life-threatening conditions.
“We aren’t Life Flight — patients have to be completely ambulatory,” he said.
However, he said there are volunteers to help patients in wheelchairs board the plane.
But patients aren’t the only people that Angel Flight West assists.
“We had a California National Guardsman who stayed in Iraq with the Oregon Guard and came home with them,” Rosemary Pelissier said. “The military wouldn’t pay for his way back to California so we gave him a ride.”
Joe said they will fly for any compassionate reason.
“We can do tissue missions as well,” he said.
Each summer in Spokane there’s a camp for children who are suffering from diabetes or recovering from severe burns.
Angel Flight West has ensured the kids wouldn’t miss out.
“They are always excited to fly, typically they sleep the entire way back though,” Rosemary said.
Jacobs has flown dozens of missions since 2000, including several flights with Chloe Deputy, a Baker City girl who had leukemia.
“She has since recovered, but those flights were very rewarding,” he said.
Originally he had his own plane.
“I sold my plane five years ago so I rent the Cessna 172 that is owned by Baker Aircraft for Angel Flights or other flights,” he said.
He said that in the event a flight cannot be arranged — for instance during inclement weather — Alaska Airlines has donated seats to people who would normally use Angel Flight.
In addition to flying patients to and from appointments, Rosemary said she had set up ground transportation for patients.
On Saturday afternoon, Sierra and her mother flew back from Palo Alto.
Sierra, who’s now 10, doesn’t resemble a child who had once been in need of a heart transplant.
Her father and fours siblings met her at the Baker City Municipal Airport. Once on the ground, Sierra sprinted off to play with her family.
Jacobs said he can’t emphasize enough that Angel Flight is free.
“There is simply no catch. We don’t even accept donations from the people we fly,” he said.