Volunteer pilots give the gift of flight

The state of the American health care system is rapidly approaching a national crisis. According to the American Hospital Association, more than 400 rural hospitals have closed since 1980, and many others have drastically reduced number of beds and scope of services.

When hospitals close in rural areas, local residents are left with few choices, and often, a long way to travel for health care. Now many patients must travel not only for specialized care, but for routine care as well. And in many cases, these patients cannot afford commercial air travel or charter flights from small airports, and most health insurance doesn’t cover travel expenses.

Enter AirLifeLine, an innovative nonprofit that is working to make it possible for disadvantaged patients who live far away from medical centers to receive free air transportation when and where they need it. The organization’s mission is simple: match volunteer private pilots who donate their aircraft and their time with patients, caregivers and family members who need transportation to medical care.

“I can’t sit for long periods of time, so it works really well for me,” explains Pamela Perry, a passenger on AirLifeLine for the last three years. Because her local clinic couldn’t offer the best treatment for multiple sclerosis, Perry needed transportation from her home in Dayton, Ohio, to the Cleveland Clinic. Without the AirLifeLine flight, Perry may not have been able to make the trip.

For Perry and many others who need to travel to receive medical care, ground transportation is often impractical and uncomfortable. Many people simply cannot endure multiple hours of travel by car, bus or train, and their treatment plans often require frequent trips far from their homes.

AirLifeLine works so well because of its strong network of experienced volunteer pilots who donate not only their planes, but their time, landing fees and fuel. What started in 1978 with about 20 pilots in California has now become the oldest and largest national volunteer pilot organization in the United States. In 2002, more than 1,500 pilots transported nearly 9,500 patients to more than 450 destinations nationwide. AirLifeLine has volunteer pilots in all 50 states, making this critical service available to anyone in need. Passengers must be medically stable, ambulatory, and in financial need.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” says Bill James, Pamela Perry’s favorite pilot. James, who has been volunteering for the past five years, says the passengers he has worked with are incredible people. “It’s wonderful to see them getting well, to watch their progress over time,” he adds.

AirLifeLine pilots fly a variety of missions in addition to carrying patients in need of care. They also transport transplant organs or other medical cargo, support disaster-relief agencies and provide humanitarian flights, such as carrying a passenger to visit a terminally ill loved one, or flying children recovering from serious illnesses or injuries to special summer camps. In fact, almost 40 percent of the organization’s passengers are children and their families.

AirLifeLine is supported entirely by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations. For every dollar contributed, AirLifeLine generates $6 in passenger services.

“It is so pleasant, and the pilots are so nice,” says Perry. She encourages anyone who may need the service to check into it. For more information on how AirLifeLine can help you or someone you know, or to volunteer, call (877) AIR-LIFE or visit www.AirLifeLine.org.

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