A Compassion Flight

April 25, 2006 was a stormy April day with a frontal system from Michigan to New York. One pilot had cancelled the previous day and I was asked by Angel Flight if I could help Mary and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kathryn, return home from Saginaw, MI to West Barnett, VT. I would do the first leg, meeting them at the Midland-Bay City- Saginaw Airport, “MBS”, taking them to Niagara Falls International airport and Jeff Gleason, an Angel Flight pilot based in Rochester, NY would do the second leg to Burlington, VT, the closest airport to their home, but still an hour drive for them from Burlington. I have a NEXRAD weather downlink in my plane which would help with weather avoidance. My weather briefing the morning of the flight indicated I should wait a few hours for the weather to improve so I could get through the tail end of the frontal system and into MBS. The weather caused by the frontal system would be south of our flight path from Saginaw, MI across the south end of Lake Huron, then across Ontario, Canada to Niagara Falls airport. We would fly at 9,000 feet which would be above any residual weather related to the frontal system to our south. I would need to fly through the tail end of the frontal system, but that would not be a problem- I don’t mind flying in somewhat rough weather but avoid it with Angel Flight clients on board.

I do mostly medical flights and not too many strictly for compassion, but Mary and Kathryn needed to get home to Vermont after visiting Mary’s terminally ill father in Saginaw. Driving would have been two days each way for them and her daughter would have missed a lot of school. Also, this route would have taken a long time to drive. This helped justify the need for a “compassion flight” in my mind. On most of my flights I find that I learn something about people and their situations. Most are in some type of compelling circumstance which requires an effort on their part to resolve. It is both time consuming and emotionally difficult for many of our clients. On this mission I learned that a compassion flight can be every bit as important to the person and rewarding to the pilot as any other.

Mary’s father was terminally ill and living at home with his wife and with VA assistance in Saginaw, MI. When Mary was preparing to go to the airport to meet me for her flight home her mom was going to drive her daughter and her, and the VA was to send someone to their home to watch her father for the hour or so that her mom would be gone. For whatever reason there was no VA help when they needed to leave home and they loaded her dad into the car and the four of them drove to MBS. Realizing that when we departed her mom would be left with her dad in the car and no way to get him back into the house alone, Mary called 911 to apprise them of the situation and ask for their help. They agreed to either be there or make sure the VA had someone there. This effort took several minutes and we were already getting a little late as we had delayed the flight a few hours due to weather and had arrangements to meet a linking flight and it was getting late in the day. So her call carried the urgency of the need and I later learned that her mom did have help when she got back home.

Because it was a stormy day the MBS general aviation terminal was empty except for two employees. So, there were five of us inside the MBS terminal building- Mary, Kathryn, me, and two ladies behind the counter. With her mom and dad in the car just outside the door Mary was talking to them and came back in to invite me to go out and meet them. While inside alone with Kathryn I was talking to her to help her emotionally as she was realizing that it was unlikely she’d see her grandfather alive again. She was sitting in a chair with her head down, softly sobbing, alone, as I left to meet her grandfather. As I was leaving one of the ladies walked around the counter and went to Kathryn.

A few minutes later Mary and I went back inside and one of the ladies was kneeling in front of Kathryn, hugging and comforting her. The other had gone for a box of Kleenex that she gave to Kathryn to take with her. This was a very touching situation. The compassion of the two people from behind the counter was needed and appreciated. This exemplifies what compassion flights are all about. It isn’t just pilots, it is many people who are less directly involved but every bit as important, from the mission coordinators, to the air traffic controllers who help with our routings, to the fixed base operators who provide for compassionate assistance and often fuel discounts.

We got into my plane and as we were taxiing out and I was waiting for my flight clearance the FBO folks opened the gate so that her mom could drive the car where they could watch us depart. When I saw this I taxied towards the car slowly, stopped for a short time facing the car so they could wave goodbye. I remained there until I got my clearance. Then we went to the departure end of the runway and left, with Mary and Kathryn giving one final wave goodbye. The box of Kleenex got quite a bit of use! The linking pilot was based in Rochester, NY and to provide better coordination I agreed to take them there instead of Niagara Falls. The two-hour flight was smooth and the leg two pilot was waiting in Rochester when we arrived and got them to Burlington as planned.

People ask why we do what we do for people who live so far away from us, often in another state. Sometimes the people are not our close neighbors, as it was in the above story. But they had a need and we helped them meet their need. Similarly, people from this area traveling a long distance are helped by other pilots in other states. Reciprocal volunteerism! It works out pretty well! And, quite often a compassion flight is every bit as meaningful and worthwhile as a medical flight. It sure was in this case!