Have Halo, Will Travel: Angel Flight Soars gives pilots a good reason to flyby Marc Schultz | August 2014
Angel Flight Soars aims to “remove transportation as an obstacle to medical care” for patients throughout the South. How are they doing it? With a 1,200-strong volunteer army of pilots and “earth angels” flying seven missions a day, every day of the year.
We all have an image (likely from TV or the movies) of an emergency patient whisked away by helicopter to a hospital that can meet their treatment needs. In most real life cases of patients whose treatment depends on distant resources, however, it’s rarely that simple: Often, they’re living with a long-term condition, and either stuck without the money to afford a plane ticket or not healthy enough for a crowded commercial flight.
That’s where Angel Flight Soars comes in: “It’s our goal to remove transportation as an obstacle to medical care,” said Jeanine Chambers, executive director since 1999.
Angel Flight manages a network of 1,200 volunteer pilots and non-pilots (known as “earth angels”) who, together, have flown nearly 25,000 “missions” taking patients in need to facilities where they can receive treatment, as well as responding to disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2004.
A special breed of pilot
When Angel Flight was started in 1983 by a pilot named Jim Shafer, it was a small collection of volunteer pilots who operated out of Dekalb Peachtree Airport (where Angel Flight is still headquartered), helping patients whenever they could. In the early years, Angel Flight handled a few hundred missions annually.
Many years and partnerships later, the organization serves six states, with branches in Alabama and South Carolina, and have increased their annual mission count by over 800% since 2000. Today, they organize an average of seven missions a day, every single day of the year.
In the 10 days following September 11, 2001, they were the only pilots in the sky.
Besides participating in airshows, aviation conferences and events, and advertising in magazines and association bulletins, said Chambers, “having our headquarters at Dekalb Peachtree Airport has been a critical part of our growth, due to the large concentration of pilots who are based there.” Volunteer word of mouth, and simple exposure to Angel Flight’s work, has brought in many more pilots.
Angel Flight pilots are also dedicated to helping out in times of catastrophe: in the 10 days following September 11, 2001, they were the only pilots in the sky, bringing disaster relief workers, mental health workers, Red Cross personnel, and even blood and plasma to New York and Washington, D.C. Their work for 2004 hurricane relief efforts earned them the “Outstanding Group Award” from the Metro Atlanta Chapter of the American Red Cross (another GCN member).
Once in the program, pilots can register for upcoming missions online through Angel Flight’s web site, where a real-time mission board went live this year. “It has helped streamline the process tremendously,” said Chambers, who says the system was in planning and construction for two years: “We received technology grants, found the perfect technical services fit, had the system installed and tested in the fall of 2013, and got it online and working in 2014.”
Putting beneficiaries in the right hands
“We help patients of any age for as long as they need us,” said Chambers. “Some families have been flying with us for more than 10 years. We helped people with more than 240 different medical conditions last year alone.”
Angel Flight connects with most its beneficiaries through hospitals and healthcare professionals. Patients and their loved ones can also make a “mission flight request” directly through the AFS web site, by email, or over the phone. Chambers also reports that “our patients are our greatest advocates,” generating new patient referrals while sharing their stories at treatment centers.
Many different medical cases qualify for Angel Flight assistance, from babies suffering birth defects and children in need of surgery to a WWII veteran named Jack, their “most frequent flier,” whose monthly Angel Flight from Macon to Atlanta keeps him from going without his cancer treatment. Angel Flight has even extended their services to a member of the animal kingdom, coordinating with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island to bring a rehabilitated sea turtle named Pierce to his new home at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.
Besides alleviating financial concerns, Angel Flight missions also offer patients prone to infection a way to avoid the highly contagious atmosphere of a commercial flight, and offers a smoother ride than a car or bus can while cutting travel time by half (or more).
Keeping the Flight Afloat
There’s no government money backing the Angel Flight mission, just foundation and private funds. Angel Flight has found much support from pilots like Victoria and Skip Moore, volunteers and board members who raised more than $85,000 holding a fundraiser at the bar they own in Seagrove, Fla.
Chambers: "I am in my position because it is always a great idea to hire your best volunteers."
Chambers herself has been a tireless and well-recognized champion of Angel Flight in the community, named an “Up and Comer” and a “Best and Brightest” by Atlanta Business Chronicle and Georgia Trend Magazine, respectively, and given a Service to Humanity Award by her alma mater, The University of West Georgia, just this year. She began at Angel Flight as an “earth angel,” a ground volunteer helping with community outreach and events. “My mom recruited me,” said Chambers. “She was friends with our founder.”
Chambers began by crafting Angel Flight’s first website, newsletter, and marketing materials. She started serving on the board in 1997, and set out from there to build up the organization’s infrastructure. “I am in my position because it is always a great idea to hire your best volunteers,” she said.
Chambers reports that the most important lesson of her 15 years is “keeping things simple and making sure they work—especially in difficult financial times.” In fact, Angel Flight won an award for it: the South Carolina Secretary of State’s 2010 Angel Award for Outstanding Organizational Efficiency.
“It’s about never losing sight of our main goal,” said Chambers: “Helping people in the community get the medical care they need.”
Marc Schultz is contributing editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.