Maybe you've called someone an "angel," because they've just done something that was just what you needed.

Or you've imagined "angels" flying about the heavens, carrying out their missions.

Both uses of the word explain the name of an organization of pilots who use their aircraft and their flying skills to transport patients, at no charge, hither and yon across America to specialty hospitals in places far from their homes.

Angel Flight West is a group of pilots, based in 13 western states, providing air transportation within Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Angel Flight West is part of a nationwide group of pilots offering free air transportation to medical patients who have a financial need, or to people who may not be able to travel by commercial airlines due to a compromised immune system and need to avoid crowds. Patients may also live in rural areas not served by commercial airlines.

In 2009, the Arizona Wing of Angel Flight West flew more than 400 “missions” to help patients. Each mission is funded by the volunteer pilot, and sometimes it can cost as much as $1,000 per flight. That’s OK with the pilots. They love to fly, and they love to help others. It’s readily apparent when they greet and help their passenger/patient aboard their aircraft.

Not long ago, Dr. Kenneth Reed of Tucson flew from Marana Northwest Regional Airport in his personal, four-seat turbocharged Mooney airplane to Chandler, picking up 9-year-old Erika Sanchez and her mother Josefina Rodriguez for a trip to the Shriners Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif.

Erika has been having leg surgeries for orthopedic correction, and needed to see her doctor. Patients must be able to climb into a small airplane on their own, or with minimal assistance.

Angel Flight tries to find two pilots per flight to help spread the cost to each pilot. Reed flew his passengers to the Lake Havasu City airport, where they met John Capuano, of Palm Springs, Calif., who rented a nearly new Cessna 172 4-seater to fly the pair the rest of the way to Santa Monica.

It was a smooth transfer. Reed taxied to within 50 feet of the entrance to Desert Skies Executive Air Terminal. There, the crew and passengers were met by Desert Skies’ ground personnel, bringing them bottles of cold water. They were ushered into a lobby with posh leather chairs, really friendly faces, and a quiet, relaxed atmosphere with a coffee pot where they could break for as long (or short) as they wanted. Total time from Chandler to Lake Havasu City, from engine start to shut down, was just over an hour.

After a brief break, Erika and her mother were chauffeured by golf cart to the parking ramp area and Capuano’s airplane. Once aboard (Erika got to ride in the front seat with the pilot this time), it was just a few minutes before they lifted off for Santa Monica. They arrived well before lunchtime.

In the spirit of help, Desert Skies Executive Air Terminal refuels Angel Flight aircraft with a 20-cent per gallon discount, worth as much as $20 or more. Pilots, patients and escorts are treated like royalty.

By car, the trip would have been just over 400 miles and about eight hours. That sort of trip is fatiguing to anyone, but especially for patients dealing with serious illnesses. It would likely have required at least one additional night of lodging. That’s why the pilots associated with the Angel Flight program do what they do.

Reed usually flies each patient only one time. He has done some 20 flights. This trip for Erika is the first time he has flown the same patient two times. Erika and her mother have been flown by other pilots a number of times over the years. Most of Reed’s passengers have been people needing treatment for cancer.

There are about 15 participating pilots in southern Arizona, most of whom own their own airplane. The aircraft don’t have to be fancy or super fast. They range from a Cessna 150, a small two-seat airplane with a cruise speed of about 90 mph, to a Cessna Citation CJ Jet with a speed of around 400 mph.

Reed has been piloting for Angel Flight West for about five years. In that time, his 20 or so trips have added up to around 4,000 miles, and he estimates his cost at about $6,000. He’s gotten “$6,000 worth of enjoyment out of it.”

Pilots and others get together once or twice a year for a barbecue or a picnic to talk about their missions, but mostly to enjoy the food and company of others who like to help someone with a need.

“It’s doing something nice for people,” Reed said. “It’s just a good thing to do.”

The website is

How to fly for Angel Flight

Angel Flight West pilots do not need instrument ratings, but must have at least 250 hours as pilot in command. They must be current with pilot flight review, must have a current flight physical, and must be current for carrying passengers.

They also need to have flown at least 50 hours in the last 12 months, or have completed a “recent” flight review.

“It’s a chance to fly with a purpose, and it helps pilots keep current,” Angel Flight pilot Dr. Kenneth Reed said.

He’s not giving tax advice, but pilots can “probably” deduct all expenses related to the flight.

Other ways to help

Angel Flight needs help from volunteers who aren’t pilots.

Volunteers, called “Earth Angels,” arrange for ground transportation at one or both ends of the flight. Other volunteers assist with outreach by visiting hospitals, including children’s hospitals and Veterans Administration hospitals, and social workers who know of people with such needs. Personal visits publicize the availability of the service.

“Anyone can be involved,” Dr. Kenneth Reed said. “Sometimes we have a ‘mission assistant’ aboard on a trip just to assist the patient and also the pilot.”

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