"Center, This is Compassion Seven-One-Golf"
Helping seriously ill patients reach far-off medical facilities gives pilots the perfect reason to fly.
- By Tom LeCompete
- Air & Space magazine, March 2000
(Page 4 of 6)
At Angel Flight Northeast's modest headquarters at the Lawrence Municipal Airport in Massachusetts, Roger D'Entremont is busy on the phone. A retired TWA captain, he is one of five paid staffers in the office (salaries are funded by donations from businesses and individuals). Angel Flight Northeast coordinates up to 50 missions a week. Requests generally come in from patients, families, or friends. D'Entremont figures his office is able to help about 90 percent of the requests it gets; the others are referred elsewhere. Still, the best-laid plans can go awry, and about 20 percent of the missions have to be rescheduled, nearly always because of the weather.
Here's a typical scenario for Angel Flight Northeast: Once a patient's condition and need are verified (patients must get a medical release from their doctor to fly), the office starts calling pilots. A schedule of available flights is also sent via e-mail to pilots, who can choose flights at their convenience.
When a pilot agrees to a flight, he is given the patient's name, condition, weight, the weight of whomever the patient is traveling with, the amount of baggage expected, and a telephone contact number. The pilot then calls the patient to discuss details of the flight and answer questions. Before flying, the pilot has the passengers sign a form releasing the organization from liability. After the flight, the pilot fills in a post-mission report--who was transported, the route and time of flight, estimated fuel consumption, and any other comments--and sends that too to Angel Flight Northeast.
While air traffic controllers have specific written procedures for handling "Lifeguard"--air ambulance--flights, there are no procedures for handling "public benefit" flights, as the FAA terms them. Over time, pilots learned to write the organization's name on their flight plan form and hope that controllers would recognize "Angel Flight" or "AirLifeLine" and give them a little extra help.
Stu Morse of Shirley, New York, an Angel Flight Northeast pilot and an air traffic controller on Long Island, says controllers try to give special treatment when handling a public benefit flight. I experienced that recently; while transporting a six-year-old burn patient from Shriner's Hospital in Boston back home to Baltimore, instead of getting the usual routing runaround that takes you far to the west before turning you south in order to avoid New York's airspace, I got a routing directly over Kennedy International Airport. When an airliner requested an altitude change, the controller returned, "Sorry, we have an Angel Flight transitioning the area." He didn't have to do that, but it was very encouraging to hear.
Last spring, the FAA went further, approving the use of a new call sign to identify public benefit flights. "Compassion," the call sign, lets controllers know the kind of mission being flown. Controllers can give such flights priority handling. To use the call sign, pilots use the identifier ("CMF") before the last three characters of their tail number and identify themselves as such throughout the flight. For example, the tail number N7371G becomes CMF71G and the pilot identifies himself as "Compassion seven-one-golf."
Once pilots complete the first flight, says Roger D'Entremont, "they're hooked." While many join just because they love to fly, "you cannot do this and not be affected by the people you're helping," he adds. Often pilots develop a bond with the patients they transport, calling them afterward to see how their treatments went or to offer encouragement. Some have even visited patients in the hospital. Likewise, some patients like to request a certain pilot whenever they fly.
"I flew in the Air Force," D'Entremont says, "and like all those guys I believed I was a god, that I was never gonna get hurt, that I was gonna live forever. But here the people you're helping are all ages, come from all walks of life, and you just realize how fortunate you are to have your health, to fly, and to have the resources to do it.