I often get asked why I fly Angel Flights missions in my private aircraft. My April 15, 2002 flight suggests an answer:
Mission: Fly alone from my home base in central Virginia to Ohio State University to transport a 39 year old woman with autism (that's ONE strike against her) and her friend to Manassas Virginia to attend an autism conference in DC, then back to my farm alone.
First phone call this AM: from my patient's traveling companion, who lost her dad last week (TWO strikes) and whose mother will be dead by tonight (THREE strikes), so she asked if I would take the autistic passenger without an escort so she could be with her dying mother. After determining that no flight risk existed, I said "OK", and then flew to OSU.
We all met at the OSU Fixed Base Operation, near the town where they all lived, and I explained that their local FBO was helping them and me with discounted fuel. We showed the escort and her austistic son (that's FOUR strikes) to the Baron, let them sit in it and look around, explained the procedures, etc.. My passenger was interested, obviously intelligent, but talked much like a computer-simulated voice might (entirely without emotion). She was calm and polite and agreed to sit up front with me. (I normally put patients in the rear, but thought I'd be better off next to her). I asked her to be quiet as we worked Columbus Departure; she could not have been more considerate.
At altitude, we had a nice tailwind so OSU-HEF (Manassas, VA) was going to be about 1:15 or so. I explained how the plane worked, let her steer for a few moments, but she was perfectly happy playing, somewhat childlike, with a bright and colorful glass sun-catcher. I asked her about her life, and she said that she had spent it in institutions diagnosed (incorrectly) as retarded and/or schizophrenic from age 13 to age 24 (that's FIVE strikes). She married at 24 to a man who is today an officer in the Ohio prison system. Her marriage brought her great joy and constant support; she was re-institutionalized (SIX) after her four children were born (two of whom are autistic; that's SEVEN and EIGHT). Yet again, she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. … another incorrect diagnosis. (NINE strikes!)
Five or so years ago she was correctly diagnosed as a highly intelligent, normally aware, and mildly (maybe moderately?) autistic, and she began to get the help and support she needs... Not one word of complaint from her during our conversation, except she hated the confinement when she was considered retarded (she did not know how to talk very well, then, but has since learned) because she was very aware all the time, just lacking skills to transmit her thoughts... She commented on the clouds, how different they looked from above, enjoyed the green Shenandoah Valley as we approached Dulles then the Virginia Hunt country into Manassas. Just like any other passenger on her first flight.
I said that, normally, I'd be happy to give her an aerial tour of DC, but because of recent well-intentioned but silly post 9/11 airspace restrictions, we free and law-abiding citizens were not able to do that any more and she said that "...those [terrorists] were crazy, had wanted to hurt us so much that their own women and children were starving", but that "...they had made a big mistake; they were messing with the wrong country." I was working Dulles Approach, but a tear or two began to flow from this former Marine.
After landing, she gave me a book of her poetry and personal writing. First patient ever to do something like that. It won't get the poetry prize, but it's quite unbelievably touching. It helps me see my world from her eyes.
Her escort had arranged a car and it was waiting, as she cannot navigate without help. A very nice driver; I explained the issues, said goodbye, and then I inquired for the first time where she was headed.
She replied—utterly unimpressed with her own importance—that she was going to the White House for a reception with the President.
We all deal with folks every day who stress us in various ways, but
being able to fly such people as this lady is surely a gift from God.
Angel Flight is one of the most rewarding organizations
that we can participate in as pilots. Chances are, once you've taken one
mission you'll be hooked for life!