“Center, This is Compassion Seven-One-Golf”

Helping seriously ill patients reach far-off medical facilities gives pilots the perfect reason to fly.

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It's about a two-hour flight from Boston to Presque Isle, Maine. I have never met my passenger, Donna Voisine, but I know she's an old hand at flying in small airplanes.

It's a great day to fly. There's barely a cloud anywhere. At 5,000 feet, we'll have Maine's rocky shoreline passing on the right and an explosion of fall color rolling by on the left. It will be one of those days where you feel like you are the only thing in the sky.

Two years before it was a different story for Voisine. Back then, she was standing on the ramp in Presque Isle, about to get into another pilot's single-engine Cessna, and she was scared. Not of flying--a few weeks earlier she had learned that she had bone cancer. If untreated, her doctor told her, she had a year, maybe a year and a half. Her best hope--perhaps her only hope--was to go to a specialist in Boston. But Boston is more than 400 miles south and a nine- to 10-hour drive from her home in northern Maine. The only commercial airline service is through Presque Isle, about an hour and half south of where she lives. With two children to care for, there was no way Voisine could afford the multiple trips needed for treatment. Whatever options she had seemed to be narrowing quickly.

Then Donna talked to a nurse who recalled reading a news story about Angel Flight Northeast, an organization of volunteers who fly patients to medical centers. Typically, the passengers are people whose medical condition has defied conventional treatment, whose health insurance benefits have expired, or who are far from large medical centers.

So there was Voisine standing on the ramp, worried about her health, her family, her future.

For the next couple of years, Voisine relied on Angel Flight Northeast pilots to get to Boston and back home again. After chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, her cancer is now in remission. All that's left, she says, are a couple of checkups a year.

My reason for joining Angel Flight was selfish--I love to fly. After getting my license in 1991, I bought a share of a 1968 single-engine Piper Cherokee, continued taking lessons, and acquired my instrument rating, which allowed me to fly in clouds and poor weather. But without a far-flung business or vacation home, I found myself coming up with excuses to fly, either taking meaningless day trips for lunch or repeatedly doing the "Great Circle" (practice approaches at my home airport in western Massachusetts). Realizing that my airplane and piloting skills could be put to better use, I posted an inquiry on the Internet two years ago asking how I might fly for charity. I was directed to Angel Flight Northeast, and have since flown patients all over New England and the neighboring region.

Pilots sign on with these groups for all kinds of reasons. Some need to build up flight time; others want the chance to fly to places they wouldn't otherwise see. Or they may have no other reason than the desire to help others.

When a pilot volunteers to transport patients, he becomes part of the Air Care Alliance, a loose-knit network of charities around the country dedicated to transporting medical patients. It consists of volunteer pilot groups such as Angel Flight Northeast, airline programs offering free or discounted tickets, and the Corporate Angel Network, which finds empty seats on aircraft making business flights (see Seats Available).

In 1998, more than 12,000 patients got medical care via this unofficial network, the vast majority by volunteer pilot groups. Most of the people transported were cancer patients; others suffered from rare or complicated diseases or conditions. In many cases, the specialized or experimental treatments that could help these patients are available at only a few hospitals throughout the country.

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