It’s not often an individual gets the opportunity to help save a life, but for the great volunteers at Angel Flight Southeast this is a regular occurrence. I’ve been a volunteer pilot for this charitable flying organization for many years now and have always been very impressed with the incredible results they’ve been able to achieve. Most routine flights are scheduled ahead of time with plenty of notice to prepare. My most recent mission, however, was far from routine.
It was 7:23pm on a Thursday night when the call came in for help. The Angel Flight Southeast mission coordinator explained that two organs which were needed for a young girl in Orlando just became available in Miami. They had already reached out to seven other pilots who were unable to fly the trip for one reason or another and had reached the end of their list (it’s sorted by airport proximity to the patient). This particular organ had a “shelf life” of only four hours so there wasn’t a moment to spare. I immediately responded “yes” as I rushed out the door to head towards the airport. Along the way I called the good folks at Showalter Flying Service at Orlando Executive Airport and requested their assistance pulling my aircraft out of the hanger so it would be ready to go the moment I arrived. I also made a confirmation call to my mission coordinator to ensure that Miami International Airport (KMIA) was the correct destination for my flight plan. South Florida has numerous airports and I couldn’t risk delivering this patient to an incorrect destination. KMIA was confirmed and my special MedEVAC flight plan was filed with the FAA.
I pulled into the airport knowing it was game day, this flight would be among the most important I’ve ever flown in my life. Every aspect of this mission needed to be performed flawlessly. I did a quick (yet thorough) pre-flight of my Turbo Cirrus SR22 Aircraft and determined everything was in a safe condition for a flight. Moments later my passengers arrived – a courageous young woman and her caring father. I typically do more coddling of new passengers before taking flights, explaining every aspect of the flight to ease their comfort level. Tonight was different however, we were racing time which was an expiring commodity so there was only time for the necessary safety briefing. Before starting the engine however, the father turned to me and simply said “thank you” as he extended his hand. I looked at him and replied, “I’m happy to help – my job tonight is to get you to Miami quickly and safely – yours is to relax and enjoy the flight.” With those quick sentiments exchanged, it was “go time”.
As I turned the key my powerful aircraft engine roared to life. I called up the clearance controller with my special mission call sign, “MedEVAC 225HL”. Typically Angel Flights use the “Angel Flight” call sign which often leads to air traffic control issuing favorable flight routing. The MedEVAC call sign however essentially adds steroids to the term “favorable routing”. I was cleared DIRECT TO MIAMI – never in my life would I have imagined such expedited routing though some of the busiest airspace in the country. Needless to say, I quickly became a huge fan of the MedEVAC call sign.
Seconds later I was taxiing my aircraft to the active runway. A quick (yet important) pre-takeoff checklist was performed and we were ready to launch. I received an immediate take-off clearance from the tower and pushed the throttle forward as we rapidly began accelerating down the runway. We were airborne! Less than an hour after receiving the call for help we were launching into the night sky. Years of need for these new organs had come down to a game of every minute counting. We were given an expedited climb to our assigned altitude, only having to level off briefly to allow for a 747 to cross above our flight path. Soon we were soaring along towards our destination.
The night was perfect. The weather was beautiful with no clouds in sight and a we even had a little tailwind to help give us a bonus push. Air traffic control continued working their magic ensuring other flight paths wouldn’t converge with ours so we could continue our direct heading towards Miami. My passenger’s moods changed as we glided along. Their thoughts and worries of the upcoming surgery eased and turned into ones filled with excitement and awe as they gazed out the window at the beautiful city lights below. We began to chat as we sat on the magic carpet ride racing along over a mile above the earth. Our conversation was wonderful, they were both incredibly friendly and I was thankful to be able to help such good people. We chatted about life, school, career aspirations and more. We also touched on details of the upcoming transplants, although I tried to let them drive that part of the conversation as I didn’t want to pry regarding her condition. She was very happy to share though and I found it very interesting to learn about the long road she’d endured to get to this point. Needless to say, hearing stories like this make you realize that the problems most people face in life are insignificant in the scheme of things. I was inspired by both by her and her father – they were simply great people who were facing adversity with positive, uplifting attitudes.
Approximately 53 minutes after take-off it was time to bring this bird home. Miami air traffic control arranged for an immediate approach so that no delays from inbound airline traffic would slow us down. We lined up with the runway and I received my landing clearance as we descended towards the city and hospital below. Winds were gusty so I expected a more challenging landing, yet it went as smoothly as every other aspect of the flight. Two minutes after touchdown we were pulling onto the Landmark Aviation tarmac where numerous team members were gathered awaiting our arrival. The staff at Landmark was fantastic welcoming my passengers, complete with a red carpet to make them feel like they were the most important guests in the world – which they were.
There wasn’t much time to be sentimental, yet my passengers and I expressed some quick thoughts as we walked through the doors towards their waiting transportation. They thanked me again and I expressed what an honor it was to have the opportunity to fly them on this special evening. I expressed that everything had gone perfectly that evening. The mission coordination, timing, air traffic control, weather – everything. I told them we should consider that a sign – a sign that tonight was meant to be and that her upcoming surgery would be successful as well. I watched as their car raced away knowing my part of the mission was complete. Less than two hours after the initial phone call came in, I had successfully transported a patient and her father more than 200 miles to their destination where vital organs were waiting to be transplanted. Her life would now be in the hands of the skilled surgeons at the nearby hospital.
I took a moment to catch my breath before my return flight to Orlando. I chatted with the fantastic mission coordination staff from Angel Flight Southeast who are the ones whom really made this all possible. I gave them a thorough briefing on the details of the mission performance including expressing my gratitude for all that they do each day. A short while later, I was lifting off once again, a bit lighter with no passengers, but with a heart filled with joy. The flight back to Orlando was smooth and allowed for reflection of all that transpired over the past few hours. The special nature of this mission really began to sink in. Although I was no longer using the MedEVAC call-sign, air traffic control provided extra courtesy as a returning Angel Flight and allowed me to return home quickly which was appreciated.
As I reflect back on this flight, I can’t help but to think of the profound effect it had on my life. I thought I was simply giving these passengers help in a time of need – the reality is they were giving me a lesson in life that no amount of money can buy. They inspired me to look beyond the little problems in everyday life and to realize the things that are truly important. Success is about having a good attitude, believing in yourself and being appreciative for what you have in life. Keep up the hope no matter how dire the situation and good things will come to you. This life lesson was the best Christmas gift I could have ever received.
If you’d like to learn more about the mission of Angel Flight Southeast, you can do so by clicking here. Angel Flight Southeast is a non-profit organization comprised of volunteer pilots and earth angels who volunteer their time, resources, aircraft and fuel at no cost to the patients and families they transport. I encourage you to learn more about their mission and consider supporting this fantastic organization.
Additional Follow-up Articles:
|The Orlando Sentinel – “In a race for time, Clermont teen gets double-transplant” - Aubrie and Fritz’ story made the front page of The Orlando Sentinel on December 21, 2013. It’s a fantastic article which goes into a lot more detail about Aubrie’s transplants than I was able to share here (due to patient confidentiality at the time I wrote this article). I invite you to read this fascinating Orlando Sentinel article by clicking here.|
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|The Orlando Sentinel – “The Editorial Board’s Weekly Champ” - A week later, I was named The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board’s Weekly Champ! While I’m honored to receive such recognition, I was just a teeny part of a much bigger team who worked together to make this mission a success. You can read this article by clicking here.
Thank you for all the wonderful comments and for your caring and compassion for this special family. I know Aubrie is going to do great things in life and you’re all a part of her story.