Heroes in the Sky

Heroes in the Sky

National group provides free transport so patients can get medical care they need.

When Lissa Klueter decided to take flying lessons in 2000, her interest was purely recreational. When her husband David began taking lessons in March 2001, it was still just for fun. But now the two Belmont residents, and their plane, are involved in something much larger. Last year the husband and wife team began flying missions for Angel Flight of Virginia, the local chapter of Angel Flight of America, a nonprofit charitable air medical transportation organization that gets patients to the treatment facilities they need.

"We heard about it from the pilot community we were involved in," David Klueter said.

"It is kind of inspirational," Lissa Klueter said. "If you're going to fly anyway, you might as well do something that is going to help someone."

ANGEL FLIGHT OF AMERICA is a national network of seven member organizations, including Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, parent organization of Angel Flight of Virginia, which arranges free flights, transporting patients and their families in private small airplanes to specialized medical treatment facilities around the country. The pilots fly patients for special surgeries, to visit specialists or as part of their continued care. Only flights for patients going for an organ transplant are arranged at a moment's notice.

In 2006, the organization arranged flights for more than 34,000 passengers on 22,000 missions nationally. Of the Mid-Atlantic region's 1,500 pilots, 311 live in Virginia. In 2006, the Mid-Atlantic region flew 565 missions carrying 900 passengers.

"These pilots truly are humanitarians," Suzanne Rhodes, director of public affairs for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, said.

Recently Angel Flight of Virginia received a 12-month Compassion Capital Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families. The $50,000 grant will go to a program to increase the organization's pilot and volunteer recruitment in Virginia's rural communities in order to improve its social service casework throughout the state.

"This money is really important to the work we do," Rhodes said. "It lets hospitals know about us and it lets those with medical need know about us."

ALL OF THE PILOTS involved with Angel Flight are volunteers, often flying their own planes, and must absorb the cost of flying missions for the organizations, including gas, insurance and training.

"Some airports will give us a fuel discount because they know we're with Angel Flight," David Klueter said. "It can dictate where we land."

"Fuel is more expensive at the larger airports, so 50 cents off a gallon can really make a difference," Lissa Klueter said.

Money and time are the biggest factors in how many missions the Klueters can run in a year. Since joining, the couple has flown eight missions for Angel Flight.

With his job as computer software designer, David Klueter is tied to flying only on weekends, when a lot of other pilots are also available. His wife has a little more flexibility with her job as an options trader, but even then it can be difficult to support flying missions.

"We strive to do one mission a month," Lissa Klueter said. "We think that is a good goal, but we could fly every day if we could afford it."

RHODES SAID THE DEMAND for Angel Flight's services and pilots continues to grow with the ability of doctors to treat illnesses and medicine becomes more specialized.

"Specialized medicine is a good thing, but patients might not be able to get to a specialist on their own," Rhodes said.

While Angel Flight Mid-America only flies patients in trips less than 1,000 miles long, the organization will help a patient reach a specialist in California or however far they need to go, Rhodes said.

"We work with some airlines so we can get people on a commercial flight to get them to specialist they need," she said.

Many of the missions that the Klueters fly are only one leg of a longer journey. David Klueter's first flight was helping to transport a 14-year-old from Bangor, Maine to a specialist in Atlanta.

"I met him [and another pilot] in Bridgeport, Conn., and flew them to Danville, Va.," he said. "There is a lot of coordination with Angel Flight Northeast and Angel Flight South or Southeast."

TO CHOOSE WHICH missions they take part in, the Klueters get a mission roster of all the patients that need to be transported. The couple then picks which missions they might be able to fly, based on their availability, fuel requirements of the flight and the capacity of their airplane. They have flown as far north as Boston and as far south as North Carolina.

"It was kind of intimidating, landing at Logan [Airport in Boston] with all the big boys," Lissa Klueter joked.

In order to become Angel Flight pilots the Klueters each had to fulfill a series of requirements above and beyond earning their pilot’s license. Each Angel Flight pilot must receive an instrument rating as a pilot, which means they can fly a plane when there is zero visibility, using only their instruments as a guide, Rhodes said.

"It is the equivalent of what commercial pilots have," Lissa Klueter said.

In addition to being licensed through the Federal Aviation Administration, pilots must be medical certified, meaning they have been cleared by a doctor to fly, and they have to have logged at least 250 hours flying as the pilot in command. Twenty-five of those hours must be in the plane they will use for Angel Flight missions.

DEALING WITH weather, ill patients and other pilots means that missions do not always go off as planned. David Klueter's first flight for Angel Flight, where he was supposed to meet a 14-year-old patient in Connecticut was supposed to happen on a Saturday. The night before, he checked the weather reports and conferred with the other pilots flying legs of the mission.

"There was a nor’easter in the Maine area," he said. "We would have been in the clouds the whole time and on top of it there was freezing precipitation in Atlanta."

Knowing that the boy had to be at his doctor in Atlanta on Monday morning, Klueter and other pilots conferred and arranged to run the entire mission Sunday instead.

"And we had clear, blue skies the whole way," he said.

For Lissa Klueter's first flight, she was scheduled to fly to New Jersey to pick up a patient and take him on the first leg of his flight to Charlestown, W. Va., so he could make an appointment in Arkansas.

"The other two pilots couldn't fly because it was too windy in their areas," Lissa Klueter said. "I went and picked the patient up in New Jersey, but I took off not knowing where he was going to end up."

To compensate for the fact that the smaller planes could not fly, Angel Flight arranged to get the patient on a commercial flight out of West Virginia.

"They made sure that he was going to get to his appointment," she said.

Rhodes said it is the pilots who generously give of their time and money that deserve the credit for the work that they do.

"They will do anything they can to help those who need it," she said. "They truly are heroes."