Should you be doing Angel Flights?

Angel Flights are a good way for you as a pilot to maintain proficiency by going places you might not otherwise go, and flying missions you might not otherwise be motivated to go fly.  Proficiency is maintained because you are driven to prepare for every flight by practicing approaches (‘spinning up’) before taking passengers. Particularly if you haven’t flown IFR for a few weeks. You personally have to be ready.

Initially I flew these missions in rented aircraft. Later, I used my beautiful Piper Warrior II (N8260Y) to fly missions. More recently, I’ve been using my second airplane, a Piper Twin Comanche N833DF, to perform missions with more load, comfort, and speed.

How long have I been doing Angel Flights? My first mission was from Morgantown (MGW) to Baltimore International (BWI) airport on October 20th, 2002. One year and on month after earning my CFII rating, and four years into my instrument rating. I ended up flying an additional leg when the first pilot’s airplane broke down – further west to Carrollton, Ohio (TSO). The leg from TSO to BWI was direct. 

I had been into BWI before with a student, and several times during my training. I remember this flight – a young girl having her arm broken periodically (intentionally) to artificially stimulate growth that previous surgery had stunted.

What drives me to do these flights?  Certainly the desire to help people is in my thoughts. Some of this is purely selfish though, in that flying as a means of helping people is almost cheating.

The aviation aspects of flying with a self-imposed mission structure is enjoyable and challenging. These missions drive me to study, train on the simulator and in the airplane, and ensure I am prepared before hand. More so than with other flights.

Ego is involved, certainly. I like playing captain. Not everyone can do what I do, and do it with equipment like this. I like getting the passengers aboard, making them comfortable, and letting them decide how much to interact with me. Some ride quietly, and others want to know everything I was doing.

I like the planning and risk management excercise, as well as the opportunity to teach. I usually take another pilot along to allow them to get mission experience in a real world setting. Having another pilot aboard increases the safety of the flight for everyone.

Experiences along the way have all been positive. Some have been downright funny. Others were a learning opportunity.  Here are just a few:

  • Flew a woman named Irene up to Bedford in July ’03 with my father in-law Charles as my copilot. The flight up was amazing in the Piper Warrior II – clocking 165 kts eastbound with the tailwinds.  We paid that back in spades on the way home; clocking 55+ kts over the ground near long island. Poor Charles waited almost 5 hours for a bathroom break…  we were both hurting. ATC actually asked me to slow down at one point for the traffic ahead…  Really?  True story….
  • In September 2003 I flew a mission out to Allegheny County, Pittsburgh. The flight ran late, and I ended up flying in the turbulence, rain, and clouds over the mountains at night. My first clue that I hadn’t kept my margins wide enough was when I was thrown into the ceiling by turbulence while the strobe lights began reflecting off of clouds as I entered cells. Very disorienting….  

    Then the rain started to get heavy and my tiny ship was tossed (…sorry for the gilligan reference). I looked down and thanked God for a reliable but old vacuum artificial horizon. 

    As the turbulence continued, I thought – what if that guy (the attitude indicator) failed? How would I know which way was up? I’d have only the turn and bank coordinator to rely on, which was electric. That T&B was bouncing all over creation in this turbulence, like a oork on the ocean in a storm. It was next to useless…   How many hours did I have on that vacuum pump again?

    That was a palpable risk, which just means my butt was tied to it with hard rope. I decided right then to spend some money on instrumentation. When I landed, I ordered a new vacuum pump and pledged to replace mine – need it or not – every 500 hours of use. Likewise, that was when I started looking for options to provide a more stable and reliable backup to the attitude indicator. 

  • In 2004 and 2005, I flew the same couple from Lancaster to Pittsburgh to see their adopted son in a rehab facility of sorts a number of times. I accepted both legs and waited for them at the airport. Once  we ran into icing on the way out there and I decided to put them up in a local hotel until we could return the next day.
  • Airshows: I routinely volunteer to marshal airplanes during the annual Angel Flight benefit air show. I was in charge of the west ramp usually, and it was always a long and enjoyable day
  • In June of 2005, I flew a transplant patient up to a camp for kids with those challenges. Northeast Philly to Charleston, as I recall. When I picked him up from PNE, his father showed up with four cases of Ensure that the kid was required to use. The concept of weight and balance was foreign to Dad, so I requested a full length departure for N8260Y – Heavy. I waited at the destination for the camp to come get him, and ended up having a wonderful conversation with this young man. Made my day.
  • Flew a couple flights in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, flew a burn victim up to Boston for treatment. Exposed to stoic courage and another frequent flier with Angel Flight.
  • Upgraded to a twin in 2009, so Angel Flights were curtailed until I could fly it proficiently, and ensure that it was reliable..
  • In January, 2010, I accepted my first Angel Flight in the twin. Had my buddy John with me, and it was bitter cold – in the low teens that day. The pickup was at Cross Keys airport in NJ, and the landing gear didn’t come down. I knew the procedure, and checked the gear circuit breaker first. It had tripped, and resetting it allowed the gear to come down.

    The flight continued to Bedford, where blowing snow had covered the middle 2000 feet of their runway. There was a crosswind over the layer of snow, so I used no brakes and rolled on through the snow. One of my better landings. The flight home was uneventful.

  • In August, 2010, Mike and I flew a woman for a routine checkup post-chemo. We picked her up at Watertown, New York and flew her to northeast Philly.  She had been clear for many years, but we found out that the cancer reappeared. I saw her name on the mission schedule after this, so I asked.
  • Another mission in 2010 was uneventful to Roanoke, and I did another airshow in the fall
  • I recorded one Angel Flight in 2011, and that ended in an emergency. Flying at 10,000′, I experienced a partial power failure on the right engine. We were headed from Northeast Philly to Charleston (CHS), and only 10 minutes out of CHS when the engine rolled back to about 40%.

    Mike and I had this happen before some months back on the left engine climbing out of Tampa. I thought I knew what it might be the cause, so I was not overly concerned, but accutely aware. I isolated the comm panel so that only Mike and I could hear the communications; then declared an emergency as added insurance should the condition escalate. I made the conscious decision NOT to feather that engine, since it was delivering some power.

    The landing was uneventful, except for being shadowed by fire trucks and men in silver suits. I had to explain myself, which turned out to take about 15 seconds.  No Problem. Next I found a mechanic who I had check the alternate air door. That was it. Five hours later he had built me a replacement and sent us on our way.

  • In January of this year, I invited a local flight school instructor along for the experience. We flew some folks down to Greensboro, NC, experiencing 75 knot winds along the way.
  • There have been other flights I recall spattered throughout my logbook that aren’t included here, but you get the picture.

Wrapping this up Volunteering for an Angel Flight mission starts when an email request or new mission list comes in. There are generally several opportunities a month to review the list and consider doing a mission.

My personal goal has been to do one mission a quarter, but I don’t often achieve four missions a year. My availability to do a mission (including recent practice) requires that my personal time, the airplanes condition, and the airplane time before next inspection be adequate for the mission. That is not such an easy thing these days; particularly with my new job.

With the airplane and pilot ready, I’ll review the latest list to find a match with my schedule. I opt to call the coordinator directly when I find a nice fit, to ensure I get the one that works for me. I did that just two weeks ago, but missed out to another pilot.

My next mission is schedule for early June.