At just over two years old, Sophia traveled with her family from Salt Lake City to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to consult with the world’s leading expert for her rare autoimmune disorder. During the trip, her family’s hope was renewed when they learned about a new treatment option, but this exciting breakthrough and hope came with an astronomical price tag for the travel arrangements; Sophia’s only option to get to her doctor was on a pressurized private jet aircraft that could accommodate her, an oxygen concentrator, medical supplies, and a nurse. Thankfully, her family did not have to pay a cent because the jet was loaned out, 1,600 gallons of jet fuel were covered via financial support, and the pilots volunteered. This is just one example of many stories like Sophia’s, all thanks to an organization called AeroAngel.
Charitable air organizations allow pilots to give back for the greater good. Typically, all pilots meeting minimum experience requirements with access to an aircraft are welcome to participate, which provides ample opportunities to serve others. But what happens if a flight requires transport through poor weather, mountainous areas, or into busy metropolitan airports that may require above-average piloting skills? Not every pilot and aircraft are suited to fly in these conditions, and unfortunately, some charitable medical flights have experienced accidents, leaving some to question how to improve the safety of what should have been a life-saving event.
Mark Pestal, a Denver assistant U.S. District Attorney and pilot, decided someone had to step up to the plate to broaden support from the aviation community for charitable flights. Through personal flying for a charitable air organization, Pestal gained the insight and inspiration needed to found AeroAngel. The Denver-based air charity provides flights free of charge, mostly to children, traveling for medical care when no other safe options exist.
What makes AeroAngel unique is that it relies solely on professional pilots (Airline Transport Pilot certified) volunteering their time and expertise to execute each mission. They also only use jet aircraft. Since its founding, pilots have flown more than 220 flights for people who needed them. Families don’t cover any flight costs, and all money raised pays for fuel and other flight-related expenses.
From the beginning, all flights were conducted through donated flight time on borrowed aircraft, but that all changed this October when the organization was gifted a Learjet! Pestal, who is titled president of the company but receives no compensation, posted this on the official AeroAngel Facebook page just after the inaugural jet flight on October 23rd :
“Thanks to our volunteer pilots, Pat and Paul, we gave Nick, 14, and his parents a lift out to San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital from Cortez, Colorado. Nick is bravely battling a tough health challenge and lacks an immune system and has limited strength, which precludes conventional travel. After the unexpected, amazing gift of this seven-passenger business jet, AeroAngel will now be able to do more life-saving flights across the country for cool kids like Nick. We’re truly grateful to those who over the last nine years have generously supported AeroAngel’s unique mission of Giving Hope Wings! Thank you!”
With this new gift, AeroAngel pilots would need to complete their Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums (RVSM) training, so Gleim Aviation provided the RVSM certification course. The aircraft is also undergoing RVSM certification, enabling the pilots to fly above 29,000 feet. This carries many benefits including faster flights, better fuel economy, and improved weather avoidance capabilities.
Joe LoRusso, aviation attorney and volunteer for AeroAngel, is excited to take the RVSM course. He has been flying with AeroAngel for the past year after meeting Pestal at an airshow in Colorado (fun fact: LoRusso was flying a 1943 Boeing Stearman in the airshow, which is yet another hobby).
“We absolutely rely on the good graces and the willingness of others to help,” said LoRusso. “It’s awe-inspiring from someone who’s been in the industry for as long as I have to see people come together.”
He has been a pilot longer than he has been driving. After becoming a Flight Instructor, LoRusso started a flight school with two friends, where he instructed for five years before attending law school. Even though he practices aviation law full-time with his wife, his passion is helping others by volunteering with AeroAngel both as a pilot and as an attorney.
Flights can easily incur costs around $3,500 per hour, which has left the organization to do emergency fundraising at times. Since the organization relies on donations, we encourage you to check out how you might be able to help. AeroAngel will continue to rely on individuals, companies, and organizations donating flight time and covering fuel costs in jets to fill current needs.
To learn how you might be able to help fund a flight or volunteer, visit AeroAngel.org.
Written by Callie Wilkes, Gleim Aviation Marketing & STEM Coordinator
About Gleim Aviation
Since 1980, Gleim Aviation’s team of pilots, instructors, writers, designers, and programmers has helped aviators pass millions of FAA knowledge and practical tests using the unique Gleim Knowledge Transfer System. Gleim is an environmentally-friendly company headquartered in Gainesville, FL.