Every citizen of the US has
wondered how best to help the people living on the Gulf Coast, so desperately
affected by Hurricane Katrina. I had sent a little money to the Baton Rouge Area
Foundation to use as they saw fit, but wanted to do more—something personal—and
was waiting for that chance.
While my FAA pilot’s
license indicates that I have commercial pilot privileges and an instrument
rating in multi-engine aircraft, I am not employed as an aviator. On my own
time, with 45 years experience in private aircraft, I fly Angel Flight missions
when I can.
Angel Flight is a free
service to patients burdened with financial issues; it offers transport to
medical appointments in private aircraft, all missions being flown and paid for
by the volunteer owner-pilots. Additional missions are undertaken as compassion
flights. Thousands of aircraft owners routinely undertake these transports,
using the special air traffic control call-sign “Angel Flight”.
When an Angel Flight
dispatcher asked me to pick up a family in Louisiana and transport them to
Fredericksburg, Virginia, I flew my twin-engine Beech Baron to Slidell to meet
the family. As we approached the Gulf coast, at least half the call-signs on the
air traffic control frequencies were other Angel Flight missions similar to
The husband ran a roofing
company. He recalls being four years old when Hurricane Camille came through his
town. Wanting never to see another hurricane, he sent his employees and family
away from the Katrina storm. His family lives simply in a trailer park, which
was badly damaged, and his employees have left for good, to safer places. So
he’s out of a home and of business, for now.
They all greeted me warmly,
as they had traveled to Baton Rouge three different times waiting for evacuation
flights that had been cancelled or delayed. They fully understood the massive
confusion and they blamed no one, yet they were running low on money and they
really needed a lift. The children—Matthew (6) and Morgan (4)—are entering
school in Virginia and planning to live with their aunt. The mother will return
to Louisiana to help rebuild a home and a roofing business. The father was
staying in Slidell to hire new employees and compete for new construction jobs.
The mother and two
youngsters boarded my aircraft. None had flown before, in any aircraft—as is
still true of more than 75% of the US population.
These parents have raised
two exceptional children with lovely good manners, looking me in the eye as they
shook hands in introduction. They speak with perfect English grammar and proper
enunciation, with little use of slang; their eyes sparkle with intelligence and
curiosity. These young children were quite at ease with an unfamiliar, and much
older, aviator from Virginia.
briefed on what to expect, they settled in with Matthew in the second front
seat. He was assigned the title: “Co-Pilot” As such, he felt free to offer me
advice and I was happy to have it.
On an instrument flight
plan, we climbed to 11,000 feet to take advantage of a nice tailwind, which
pushed us along to their new home in a bit over four hours. The weather was
lovely with a few cloud tops at or near our flight level. It was time to chat on
The mother is an honors
student in an industrial college that teaches electronics manufacturing
techniques and assembly; she was educating herself for one of the many good
high-tech jobs on the Gulf coast. To get from her trailer home to class, she
drives across the (now-collapsed) Lake Ponchetrain bridge to that
(now-underwater) college. She has no idea how she will finish that electronics
course. She was three months away from a much brighter financial future, and …
here comes Katrina.
hours into the flight, we approached the NC/VA border. The co-pilot position
had been usurped by Matthew’s utterly charming younger sister, Morgan. The boy
and his mother were asleep. Morgan also liked her new title and had no trouble
at all understanding the NEXRAD XM-WX weather display on our instrument panel
that showed a large storm cell on the state line. As we looked out the cockpit
windows, we could see that same storm cell quite clearly, well off to the side
of our planned route. I had no intention of going anywhere near it and it became
increasingly obvious that she had no intention of letting me do so. She asked
several times if that was the storm we could so clearly about twenty miles away.
She had seen quite enough of storms, she informed her captain quietly, quite
emphatically, yet very politely. Her captain concurred with her advice and we
went around it.
As we passed well abeam the
storm, she relaxed and watched with interest as we passed by the magnificent
cloud structures lit by a clear Carolina-blue sky above. Then, she (age four,
please recall) says, quietly:
“God is up here, isn’t He?
I was stunned. “Yes,
darling. I do believe He is”
“Which cloud is He in?” she
By now, I am quite over my head with respect to theological matters and
replied that I thought He was everywhere. That seemed to satisfy her.
A few minutes later we
entered the smooth tops of a cloud layer and the aircraft hummed along quietly
surrounded by water vapor. It is like being in a very heavy fog and there is no
sense of aircraft speed or motion at all.
“Are we in heaven now, she
Grasping desperately, I
offer: “No, Morgan, but we are very close, I suspect. This is where I am
happiest. Do you like it, too?” She smiled broadly and nodded her “Yes” back to
For those who have never
had the great privilege to fly with a highly intelligent, articulate, polite,
and gracious co-pilot, I would like to introduce Morgan. Yes, indeed, she is a
picture-perfect spitting image of precisely whom you are thinking, and she also,
I’m betting, has the ability to become a US Ambassador, just as the first
Shirley Temple did:
Given the ages of these
very young children I had noted on our flight plan that we would request a
step-down descent profile. Beginning, near Danville, with the Washington Center
controllers, then with hand-offs to the Roanoke and Potomac Approach
controllers, many of whom I know personally, we were issued step-down clearances
in two thousand foot increments. This professional handling is typical of the
effort that it takes from all sides to make an Angel Flight go smoothly and
comfortably, as ours did.
After landing and then
refueling my plane at Fredericksburg, I said goodbye to the mother and to
Matthew who, unprompted, rose from his seat to shake my hand in a gracious and
gentlemanly manner. Morgan flew across the room, jumped up in my arms, and
hugged me tightly with her curly blond locks buried in my neck for a long, long
time. Her smiling mother knew that I did not want to give her back. Knowing that
I shall never see her again is painful, yet that burden is mine alone to bear.
Nevertheless, Morgan and
her family exemplify why my Baron and I—and thousands of pilots just like
me—stand ready for future Angel Flights. While almost all Angel Flight family
stories are compelling, few I have flown can compare to Morgan, Matthew and
their energetic Louisiana parents who are hard at work on their home repair,
business rebuilding and financial recovery… a guaranteed American success story,
about to be written.
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!