“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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As the groups have grown and become more visible, they have also become better able to negotiate the waiving of landing fees at frequently used airports and discounts on fuel for pilots on charity flights. For example, Signature Flight Support, a company that operates the nation's largest network of fixed-base operators, gives volunteer pilots a break on fuel costs of up to 50 cents a gallon at its 30-plus airport locations in the United States. Similarly, Massport, which runs Boston's Logan International Airport, waives landing fees for charity flights, saving pilots about $100 a flight. For John Duval, Massport's assistant director of operations, the decision to waive the fees was an easy one. For one thing, Massport was already extending that courtesy for charity-related events; for another, Duval was a volunteer with Angel Flight himself.

Since pilots have to pay all of the operating costs incurred on charity flights, breaks like these, in addition to the tax deduction pilots can take for some charity-flight-related expenses, can keep flying costs down.

In return, most organizations require their pilots to own their own aircraft, have at least 300 hours logged as pilot in command, and have an instrument rating (some groups tell their pilots to fly the passenger leg of each flight IFR--instrument flight rules--to increase safety and reliability).

Angel Flight Northeast requires prospective pilots to attend an orientation. "We want to get the message out that this is much different than flying a friend or friend's friend down to breakfast or lunch," says Camerlin. "It's flying people who don't know you at all, who have never met you, who are under tremendous stress in their life and who now have to travel by private aircraft, probably for the first time." Sensitivity and communication are buzzwords at the orientation.

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."

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