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Alaska pilots volunteer to provide transportation for people in need

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

ANCHORAGE Stuart Goering landed his four-seat airplane at Merrill Field on a busy Thursday morning.

He'd flown to Soldotna, picked up his only passenger, Lorrie Judy, and returned with her to Anchorage all before 10:30 a.m.

Goering and his sons packed the back of a Suburban with her bags and a box of fish from her brother. Judy gave Goering a hug before his teenage son shuttled her to Anchorage's main airport.

Judy had to catch a flight to Oregon around noon. Goering had to return to work.

Goering is a lawyer, not a professional pilot.

His flights that day were part of a mission for a growing program called Angel Flight. Goering donated his time and all the flight-related costs. Judy flew for free.

In recent years, private pilots have volunteered to fly medical patients inside Alaska through a program called AirLifeLine. Last summer, that program merged with a similar one, Angel Flight.

Angel Flight serves as an intermediary between patients needing free transportation and pilots willing to supply it.

Judy found out about the program through her sister, Kim. Judy is donating her right kidney to Kim, who has polycystic kidney disease. Judy needed to get to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for the surgery. But Judy's husband recently lost his job, and they didn't have any way to pay for the flight.

''I didn't know how we were going to get there,'' Judy said in a telephone call from the gift shop in Soldotna where she works. Then Goering heard about Judy's predicament and signed up to fly her at no cost.

''The whole objective is to help people who need it,'' he said. ''Right now, I am certain there are people out there who need it but aren't aware of it.''

Charitable flights sparked Goering's interest years ago when one of his children was hospitalized in the Lower 48. Children from all over the country were there, and many of their parents couldn't be with them.

Goering wondered if there was a way to fly parents to see their kids. He didn't find a program like that, but he did find Angel Flight.

Through Angel Flight and its predecessor AirLifeLine, Goering has flown about two dozen flights during the past several years. He has flown to Fairbanks, Kodiak, Homer and Cordova to take patients to chemotherapy treatments, doctor appointments and surgeries.

He has even involved his family. His wife or children will drive the patients wherever they need to go when Goering brings them to Anchorage in his plane. Sometimes he'll fly patients' family members for free, allowing them to have some support during treatment.

''It doesn't cost any more to fly two people than to fly one,'' he said.

In Alaska, pilots like Goering, Angel Flight and Alaska Airlines work together to help patients get medical care where they need it. Last year, Alaska Airlines gave 400 tickets to patients flying to Shriners Hospitals in the Lower 48. The airline also gave about 600 free tickets to patients who had to fly commercially from Alaska to medical facilities Outside.

The tickets were supplied through the Angel Flight program, said Susan Bramstedt, an Alaska Airlines spokeswoman. Angel Flight America is made up of regional, nonprofit programs. Alaska is served by Angel Flight West, based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Patients can qualify for free flights in several ways, said Cheri Cimmarrusti of Angel Flight West. One way is meeting the income requirement. Cimmarrusti said Angel Flight doesn't expect patients to be destitute, but they must lack the financial means to fly commercially.

''They aren't expected to expend all their assets before calling Angel Flight,'' Goering said.

Patients also qualify for medical reasons. For example, some patients have had organ transplants or are taking chemotherapy.

Treatment compromises their immunity, making it risky to fly in a plane filled with other passengers who can spread infections. To fly in small planes, however, patients must be able to walk on their own with limited help, Cimmarrusti said.

Some patients live in remote areas that don't have access to affordable commercial transportation. They, too, can qualify, Cimmarrusti said.

Angel Flight doesn't allow patients to call directly and request help. Cimmarrusti said a doctor, a pastor, hospital staff or another agency must call on the patient's behalf.

If Angel Flight accepts the request, the patient's flight need is posted online. Alaska pilots can log onto the site, find a flight that works with their schedule and sign up for it. After that, the patient and pilot work together on the rest of the details, Cimmarrusti said.

Angel Flight is just finishing its first year arranging flights in Alaska. During that time, hundreds of free flights were arranged, but only a handful were flown by private pilots, Cimmarrusti said.

To expand service here, more pilots need to sign up, Goering said. Only a dozen Alaska pilots have signed up as volunteers; Alaska has 3,656 licensed private pilots, said Joette Storm, spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration.

There have been times this year when patients needed flights and no pilots volunteered to fly them, Goering said.

''We have a territory with a lot of mountains and a lot of weather issues,'' Cimmarrusti said. ''Sometimes, oftentimes, a pilot won't take a flight when they know the weather is going to be bad.

''And occasionally we just can't find one.''

Signing up more pilots means more patients need to know about the program too, Goering said. That way, there's a match between supply of pilots and demand from patients. Goering has been explaining the program to local doctors in hopes that they'll pass on the information to patients.

''The patients are usually extremely grateful for the fact that people have donated their time and resources to make their travel easier or possible,'' he said.



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