Demand For Volunteer Medical Flights Doubles In Down Economy

Mar 21, 2012

Angel Flight is a group of volunteer pilots. They fly people with medical needs from small towns to big cities where major hospitals are.

During the down economy the last few years, requests for these missions have nearly doubled. So far the group has managed to keep up, but the growing number of patients needing a ride doesn’t seem to to be slowing down.

David Anderson is flying home. He’s soft-spoken. He has grey hair and wears a faded, orange Carhartt jacket. He's going from Seattle, back to Elk, Washington, which is about 20 miles north of Spokane.  “Elk has maybe 800, 900 people; maybe 1,000 at the most," Anderson says. "Its all rural, there's not really a town there anymore. But we still have a post office.”

Anderson is sick. He served in the Korean War and says his multiple illnesses come from exposure to Agent Orange. He was visiting Seattle for treatment that he couldn't get in Spokane.  He says, “I have non-Hodgkins lymphoma, hiskemic heart disease, diabetes 2, and I have peripheral neuroprathy," Anderson says. "I had to get some specialty treatments at the Seattle veteran's hospital.”

“Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, is our normal radius of operations from Seattle," says Edward George Bryce, one of the command pilots for Angel Flight. "A lot of these people that we've flown have no other way to get to their treatment. We don't fly rich people. We fly people that need to fly and can't afford to.”

Bryce estimates that 90 percent of Angel Flight’s missions are cancer-related. And places like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, University of Washington School of Medicine and Valley Medical Center make Seattle a major destination for patients from around the Northwest.

But flying even small planes isn't cheap, and during the economic turbulence of the last few years, the number of volunteer pilots shrank. At the same time, requests from patients nearly doubled. In 2010 Angel Flight pilots made more than 300 flights. In 2011, that number shot up to more than 600.

“Flights went up 70 percent in the last year, in Washington," says Terry Judge, a retired cardiologist in Spokane who does outreach for Angel Flight. "The amazing thing is that our pilot numbers have gone down over the economic problems. So, fewer pilots are flying more missions.”

The other pilot on this flight is Bob Schaper. He flew 165 missions in 2011 -– the most of any Angel Flight pilot. Schaper is on a fixed income. Yet last year he spent around $40,000 helping transport people around the Northwest.  “I'm retired. I'm a retired social worker, my wife is a retired school teacher of 33 years," Shaper says. "But I enjoy flying and my wife supports it.”

Angel Flight estimates that about 80 percent of its missions are made by 20 percent of its pilots. For patient David Anderson, these flights allow him to afford his doctor visits and still be able to live at his home in Elk.

“I've been back and forth here, at least eight times," Anderson says. "Just once this year so far.”

But he says he’ll be back soon.

Shaper says he plans to spend less money flying next year. But the demand from patients doesn't seem to be going down any time soon. “You could fly every single day, multiple flights, if you had the money,” Shaper says.


Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio