One of the things I do when I’m not working at Tutor.com relates to my being an instrument-rated commercial pilot with more than 750 hours of pilot-in-command time: I serve as a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight, providing needy kids with air transport to specialized medical facilities for evaluation, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.
I check the Angel Flight website frequently and noticed last week that the stars were aligning for me to pick up an important mission. On a day that I have off from work next week, a one year old in New Jersey needs transport to the Cincinnati area for a bone marrow transplant.
Remembering well how stressful it was when my own baby boys spent more than two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit when they were born, I wanted very much to help if I could.
Given that I don’t own my own airplane, however, before I could volunteer to do the flight, I had to first procure an airplane to use that day. Luckily, this was not hard. For more than 15 years I have been a member of the TSS Flying Club, a nonprofit corporation that operates a small fleet of small planes, and our online schedule showed that a plane I like to fly, N711DA, a 4-seat single-engine Cessna 172 with GPS was available.
The TSS Flying Club has been around for more than 50 years and is a wonderful way to keep flying costs way down while keeping proficiency and safety way up. We meet regularly, fly together often to practice procedures, share rides to destinations, and have endless discussions (and debates) on our online bulletin board about the best safety protocols, procedures, fun places to fly, and much more. Back in the day, when I had more free time, I had the privilege of serving on our Board of Directors (including a term as President).
After reserving the plane online I inform Angel Flight HQ that I will take the mission. They confirm back and we both begin planning the logistics.
On their end, the folks at Angel Flight notify the airports that we will be using Teterboro (TEB) and Latrobe (LBE) and Cincinnati (LUK) about the flight. Those airports and their facilities generously agree to waive all landing and handling charges and fees for Angel Flights. They also connect me to the second pilot who will handle the LBE to LUK leg of the flight. We email to coordinate the patient transfer in Latrobe.
If you are wondering why I don’t fly the patient all the way to Cincinnati, there are two reasons. First is that Angel Flight does not pay for or provide any financial support for these missions. It only helps with the logistics. All costs for Angel Flights are borne by the volunteer pilots. We cover 100% of the costs of each flight, including airplane rental, fuel, equipment, charts, etc. I estimate that it will take me about 2 hours to fly GAI to TEB, 2.5 hours TEB to LBE, and 1.5 hours LBE back to GAI. My total out of pocket costs for the mission will be approximately $600. If I had to fly another 500 miles round trip from LBE to LUK that would take the cost over $1,000 out of pocket, which is beyond my current means. In addition, flying GAI to TEB to LBE to LUK to GAI would be about ten hours of flight time in a single day. That’s an exhausting day for any pilot and exhaustion compromises safety, which I don’t do.
Back to work on the logistics, my next issue is researching noise protection. When I fly I always wear a headset, as do all of my passengers. The planes I fly are pretty loud inside the cabin. But how would a one year old baby wear a headset? I post that question to my flying club discussion board and a spirited discussion ensues. I soon learn that many of my friends flew frequently with their own infants and used a variety of setups such as tiny little foam earplugs, small headsets, and foam headbands, while others decided that none of these things was necessary. I decide to bring foam earplugs and also some small noise-cancelling headphones that a club member friend offers to lend. In addition, I plan to fly at a lower power (RPM) setting, to reduce engine noise. And, with any luck, my littlest passenger will mostly sleep through the 2.5 hour flight.
Next up is coordinating with the mom, who will be accompanying her son on the trip. I call her and introduce myself and we agree to meet at Teterboro Airport (TEB) just outside of NYC at 10:30 am next Tuesday. I follow up with an email that includes a copy of the liability release that is required for the flight, so that she can review it in advance. I print out a hard copy and prepare an envelope. When she signs it at the airport I will drop it in the mail to Angel Flight HQ. We will then fly to Latrobe where they will transfer to the second pilot’s plane.
The next step is planning my route and fuel stops and sketching out what my flight plans will look like. Even if the weather is crystal clear I will file an IFR flight plan, which gives me extra margins of safety, including guaranteed full-time attention from air traffic control (ATC). I’ve flown these routes before and there is nothing unexpected but I will still double-check the morning of the flight to make sure there are no last-minute notices to airment (NOTAMs) announcing temporary flight restrictions or reporting problems with any navigation systems.
As I research each of the airports I’m going to I am reminded of other nice things about Angel Flights. One is that all of the airports on my route of flight will waive their landing fees and handling charges. (At big airports these fees can really add up, so this is very much appreciated.) The other is that when I am flying an Angel Flight mission, I get to use a special call-sign that gets my flight priority handling from ATC. Instead of identifying myself as “711 Delta Alpha” as I usually do, I will be “Angel Flight 1 Delta Alpha,” and ATC will know from my flight plan that I’m carrying a one year old en route to a bone marrow transplant.
Given that I will be flying IFR, anyone who wants to can track my flight progress in real time at http://flightaware.com/. I’m planning to depart GAI around Tuesday, July 28th at 8:30 am ET and will be using tail number NGF1DA.
Bart Epstein is the Senior VP, Corporate Development and General Counsel at Tutor.com. He is based in Arlington, VA and is the dad of 2 year old twin boys. He promises to write an update after the flight!