Angel Flight: Bringing Pilots and Patients Together

By Sanjay Saigal

We were at 8,500 feet over Garberville, California when Will, in the co-pilot's seat next to me, had a minor panic attack. The battery in his headset had died and its noise reduction had stopped working. As I flicked switches and reseated plugs to attempt a fix, Will began to wail, "It's not working, it's not working!"


Piston-engine airplanes are noisy, especially on takeoff. But in cruise flight, the engine isn't working too hard. It's relatively quiet and electronic noise reduction (ENR) is far from critical. So losing headset power for a few minutes wasn't exactly a life-threatening emergency. 

Will was a high school senior. Since the start of our flight, he had stayed deep in his hand-held video game. Will and his mother had come to the airport straight from Stanford Hospital. I wondered if the mini-tantrum was a reaction to the harsh steroid therapy he'd just undergone. Whatever the trigger, the presence of an emotionally labile, 170-pound young man within reach of the airplane's controls troubled me more than just intellectually.

I was flying Will and his mother home for Angel Flight West, a nonprofit that brings together pilot volunteers with patients in need of non-emergency transport. Not all the volunteers are pilots; many plan logistics, liaise with hospitals and social service agencies, raise funds, or otherwise support the organization. 


Not all passengers are patients either. Although a majority of the missions are treatment-related, Angel Flight also arranges transport for special needs events (such as burn survivor camps and wounded warrior gatherings), for relief operations personnel, and even for family members with critically ill relatives. AFW operates in the western United States. Altogether nine such nonprofits cover all 50 states, flying many thousands of missions every year. 

The vitality of AFW reflects the remarkable ability of Americans to organize and get done what needs doin'. To borrow from de Tocqueville, I admire

... the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States [manage] to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.

The cooperative genius of American society is often overlooked. In light of its frequent social eructations of hyper-individualism -- Tea Parties, Ayn Rand fêtes, and the like -- that isn't too surprising. My familiarity with the Indian social sector doubles my admiration. Organizations such as AFW achieve remarkable results with lean rosters and an absence of cant or cults of personality. For instance, I bet the average AFW volunteer has no idea who runs it. Which is as it should be.

Most of my Angel Flight passengers, like Will and his mother, are visiting a Stanford University hospital or clinic. By far the majority are children visiting the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital. They come from as far away as eastern Oregon. Some of the trips have two or three legs of up to 300 miles each. 

P1010342.JPG


My youngest passenger so far has been Linda, a veteran of five Angel Flight trips between far northern California and Palo Alto. Racked by gastrointestinal complications, Linda has spent three of her first eight months in Stanford hospitals. Before she has learned to talk, she has had a heart attack. She cannot be moved without her oxygen computer and feed pump. 

During our flight, if a change in air pressure hurt her ears, Linda sucked her lips and made clicking sounds. When it hurt bad enough to cry, her resting pulse rate of 150 shot past 200. But for me, Linda made a great passenger, seemingly enraptured, either by my beard or my eyeglasses.

P1010040-1.JPG
My passengers' ages have ranged into the seventies. Tom is a retiree in his seventies with a successful kidney transplant. A strenuous ten-hour car trip for his annual check up is, thanks to Angel Flight, reduced to two flight hours. Going home with me, he even got to fly the plane! 

Perhaps my most unusual trip involved ferrying Susan, a pastor's wife who charmingly expressed curiosity about my religious views. Since I'd read Poulos' Irreligion recently, playing Devil's Advocate with Susan helped the hour fly by. Needless to add, with most folks, religion and politics are not normal conversational fare.

Most of my passengers have been Angel Flight veterans. Their demeanor typically features gratefulness marbled with a stoic weariness. It's usual to see a mother (the accompanying adult is almost always the mother) transparently suppressing her nervousness about flying in a small plane with someone she met ten minutes ago. I find it especially amusing when, upon landing, a tight-lipped parent immediately becomes garrulous. I imagine the relief must overwhelm.
P1010072-1.JPG

The most notable aspect of this supposedly charitable activity is the remarkable depth of benefits that accrue. My flights, which would otherwise be doomed to being $100 hamburger runs, gain purpose and meaning. Since, unlike $100 hamburger runs, Angel Flights can involve flying in imperfect weather, it's easier for me to remain instrument current. The flights foster connections with people in different situations -- small town Californians, teenage video game savants, even fruit-pickers and manual laborers. That is a cross--section I would otherwise be unlikely to encounter. As yet I have not had a flight or a decision I made during a mission that I regret. 

If you're wondering what happened with Will, it turned out fine. As soon as I snapped new batteries into his headset, he calmed down. Then, instead of refocusing on his video game, he began to tell me about his plans to go to college and teach special needs children. When I asked if he'd be interested in flying the plane, he really perked up. We practiced altitude control, turns and descents. Combining the latter two into descending turns appeared to unnerve his mother. But she smiled and held on tightly. We landed uneventfully and took pictures in brilliant sunshine, each happy to be alive.

(For privacy, I've changed the names of the passengers.)

Sanjay Saigal is founder and CEO of Mudrika Education, Inc., with offices in Silicon Valley, CA and Delhi, India.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in National

From This Author

Just In