An AFE pilot poses with the family he helped transport. (Photo provided.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

As readers of this newsletter are well aware, the American economy is riddled with the kind of dysfunction that makes it hard to keep crucial rural institutions operating. Past interviewees have rooted the origins of that dysfunction in such high-level trends as financialization and globalization, and others have discussed its specific manifestations in phenomena like the popularization of travel nursing, exploitation by corporate agriculture, and barriers to academic success for small-town students. I get frustrated, sometimes, by trying to balance an emphasis on the structural factors that produce rural inequity with the stories of the true heroes responding to the symptoms of urban economic agglomeration. Why write about a farm co-op when there’s a barn-burning investigative piece about the farm subsidy system waiting to be written? Or conversely, why waste your time thinking about seemingly unchangeable systems when there’s a co-op feeding its community that could use support and exposure? The conflict can be immobilizing.

All of that is to say, this week I’ve interviewed some folks from Angel Flight East (AFE) – an organization of volunteer pilots who fly patients to far-away hospital visits in the eastern U.S., free of charge. And if you know someone who can explain in plain English how such an organization came to be necessary to our broken healthcare system, I’d love to talk to them too.

Jess Ames is AFE’s Outreach & Events Director, and Mike Borner is one of its volunteer pilots. Enjoy our conversation about the organization’s origins, its geographic footprint, and the experiences of its pilots, below.

An AFE pilot poses with the family he helped transport. (Photo provided.)

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What are the origins of Angel Flight East? What problem was the organization created in response to?

Jess Ames: Angel Flight East was started back in 1992 by a gentleman by the name of Harry Morales. He wanted to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew. Someone had suggested that he should start a public benefit flying organization in Pennsylvania because at the time there was not one established. In our first year of operations, we flew 17 flights and now we schedule upwards of 1,000 flights per year. Angel Flight East’s primary mission is to provide flights for children and adults in need of medical care far from home. We also do disaster relief and compassion flights. Compassion flights are handled on a case-by-case basis, but a great example is flying family members or friends to see someone in treatment. It really helps keep families together during a medical journey.

DY: Who are your users? Where do they live and where, in general, do they need to go?

Mike BornerOur users are anyone who requires to travel for medical care, whether it be a child or adult. Our two biggest requirements are that a person is medically stable and ambulatory to board a small, general aviation airplane. We do ask for a need verification form stating that it would be a hardship for the patient to get to the appointment on their own, but we do not ask for any type of financial information. Our goal is to help families before they get to the point of financial distress.

Angel Flight East has a 14 state footprint, from Virginia to Ohio to Maine. Our patients and pilots are scattered throughout those 14 states. We have a large focus on rural areas in a 6 state targeted footprint including West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. As many are aware, residents in rural communities are older and sicker on average, often with more limited access to healthcare. AFE provides an important resource to break down the barriers to needed medical care. Many passengers who live in rural communities are going to major cities with a larger range of healthcare options.

DY: Who are your volunteers? How have they described their motivations for doing this work?

JA: Angel Flight East volunteer pilots are the true heart and core of our organization. It is their planes, their time, and their fuel which they are providing as a 100% donation. I think that is always someone’s biggest question – “Why would a pilot volunteer for this?” And usually the answer is, “pilots love to fly.” Rather than going up and just flying in circles or flying to lunch, Angel Flight East provides a reason for pilots to fly by pairing them with a person who needs to get to medical care far from home.

DY: Mike, what was your previous experience as a pilot? How’d you first get involved with this volunteer work?

MB: I was a mostly weekend recreational pilot flying around the northeast to discover new, for me, airports and enjoy the proverbial $100 coffee. After visiting most of the airports within reason and wondering where to go next, I discovered Angel Flight. This opened up all sorts of new airports, new flying experiences and new reasons to fly. So much more worthwhile than an expensive coffee or hamburger.

30% of all passengers flown through AFE are children. (Photo provided.)

DY: Can you describe a typical trip with AFE?

MB: It starts well before the actual flight. I select the desired flight from those available on the AFE website and subsequently get assigned the flight. I contact the passenger and exchange contact details and determine their schedule. We finalize flight and meeting details. If they are a first-time passenger I brief them more thoroughly on what to expect and where to meet, and make sure they have done all that’s needed on their end, such as arranging ground transportation and creating a backup plan.

Sometimes the passenger’s trip involves several flights. If that is the case I coordinate meeting and timing with the other pilots I may be linking with. On the day of the flight I review all the pertinent flight planning details. Generally I have to fly to another airport to meet the passenger. We then board the plane where I give the passenger an orientation of the plane and a safety briefing. I strap in and begin the flight.

From here it is a flight like any other flight, solo or with passengers. I do use a compassion call sign instead of my normal tail number. This generally gets me preferential routing and handling from air traffic control.

At the destination I help the passenger disembark and make sure their ground transportation is still under control. If there is a link I make sure the link is handled completely and properly. Often this involves sharing flying-geek stuff with the link pilot.

DY: If anything comes to mind, can you describe your most memorable trip?

MB: Almost every trip is memorable, each for their own reasons. I don’t know if I can pick the most memorable. Some are memorable because their circumstances are unique. Some are memorable because, for some reason, the passenger and I just click, some are memorable because they are under heartbreaking circumstances, and some are memorable because I’ve flown the passenger before.

Then again, they’re all the same. In all cases I am providing important assistance to a person who is likely going through one of the most difficult challenges of their life. I am able to take one obstacle out of that challenge – the logistics of getting needed care. I am able to show the passenger that they are cared for and that people are here to help and support them in a trying time. It enables me to use my flying as a gift and to share this ability with those that need it most. Every trip is pure joy and satisfaction for me.

DY: I know that the rural healthcare landscape has changed a lot over the years, has that affected the experiences of AFE pilots and users? As an organization that responds to disparities in healthcare access, how much are you guys thinking about the structural-level trends that make this work necessary?

JA: During the peak of Covid-19, we did have to temporarily suspend passenger flights and changed our efforts into flying PPE to rural hospitals across the east coast. Even as telehealth has become a major resource for many patients, it may not be the best option for everyone. We’ve heard a lot about how rural residents may not be as trusting to outsiders (especially one coming in offering free flights!), which is why we try to be in the communities as much as possible.

Healthcare trends will continue to change, but we want to make people aware that Angel Flight East is here to help for as long as needed.

DY: How can interested readers support the mission of AFE?

JA: One of our biggest challenges is that many families are unaware Angel Flight East exists. The easiest way to support AFE is to help us spread the word, whether it is posting flyers in your community or simply sharing our social media posts (@AngelFlightEast). Anyone interested in a flight can also request one directly from our website.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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