Chris Nataline, of Leesburg, Florida, received his non–small-cell adenocarcinoma diagnosis in 2010. After trying various therapies, his oncologist, Alice Shaw, MD, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, directed Chris to the specialists at Tennessee Oncology in Nashville—nearly 650 miles from home—so the father of 2 young children could participate in a clinical trial.
“There was no way I could have done that,” says Chris, considering the cost of commercial flights for treatments every 3 weeks. Making the more than 11-hour drive would have been unbearable.
Chris says that Dr. Shaw recommended he call the Air Charity Network (ACN), a nationwide network of regional nonprofit organizations that provides free air transportation to children and adults who need to get to far-from-home medical care.
ACN’s pilots are volunteers who donate their time, fuel, and airplanes to transport passengers. Many agree to fly “compassion” missions, which may involve transporting a relative to be with an ill loved one, flying young cancer survivors to specialized summer camps, or helping with humanitarian aid.
Combined, the ACN is the nation’s largest unified volunteer pilot organization comprised of thousands of pilots who annually fly tens of thousands of passengers across the United States. ACN serves all 50 states plus the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
Chris was directed to Florida-based Angel Flight Southeast to inquire about getting to Tennessee.
“I made one call, and that was it. It was so simple,” said Chris. “I told them I had an appointment in Nashville, and Angel Flight Southeast made all of the arrangements. They coordinated the pilots to pick me up at the closest airport to my home.”
The passengers who fly with ACN’s volunteers need to get to their destination for various conditions. Many of the passengers have some form of cancer and are participating in or trying to get into a clinical trial.
“Angel Flight Southeast pilots fly nearly 3,000 missions each year,” said Steve Purello, CEO of Angel Flight Southeast and Director of the ACN. “A large percentage of our flights are going to and from Tampa, where patients are treated at the Moffitt Cancer Center.”
“We recently ran a report of the reasons people fly. It was 5 pages long, and listed many types of cancer, pulmonary and heart diseases, orthopedic issues, and hearing loss,” said Mr. Purello. “We even have a group of pilots who agree to be ready to transport transplant patients to potentially life-saving surgery at a moment’s notice.”
Passengers can fly as often as needed at no charge, but they must meet certain qualifications. They must be able to be transported in an unpressurized, small aircraft; must have a financial need; and must be ambulatory. The service is not an air ambulance and pilots cannot provide medical assistance in flight.
Companions can fly along for free, if the pilots have space and weight allowance in the airplane.
Passengers arrange for ground transportation from the airports to their destination. Occasionally, ACN affiliates have agreements with fixed-base operators at some airports that have loaner cars that pilots can use to transport their passengers to their appointments. Otherwise, passengers may call a taxi or a shuttle service.
ACN’s affiliates are always recruiting volunteer drivers who are willing to provide the ground transportation to and from medical appointments for the passengers.
Care Traffic Controllers
Each ACN affiliate has Care Traffic Controllers who process flight requests. Sometimes, missions require coordination with other ACN affiliates.
For example, each of Chris Nataline’s appointments requires 3 legs to get to his destination, because when a one-way trip exceeds 300 nautical miles, the mission is typically arranged as 2 or more legs. Angel Flight Southeast coordinates with Mercy Flight Southeast and Airlift Hope North Carolina-Tennessee to recruit the pilots to fulfill Chris’ missions, including the outbound and return flights. The 3 legs may seem like an inconvenience, but not to Chris.
“I used to be afraid to fly, but now I love it. It is so much better than flying commercial, because you don’t have to deal with the stress of the larger airports and security,” said Chris.
Charles George, of Buford, Georgia, has volunteered for many of Chris’ mission requests.
“I look forward to his flights. He’s like our adopted grandson,” said George. “Chris is such a sweet guy, and he’s always appreciative.”
Who Are These Volunteers with Wings?
The pilots who make up the ACN love to fly. Volunteering to transport people to far-from-home medical appointments helps the pilots “get their fix.”
Alan Hoffberg has been a volunteer pilot with the ACN since 1994.
“There is a saying,” says Mr. Hoffberg, of Longwood, Florida. “‘Complete one flight, and you won’t have to ask why!’ It’s incredibly rewarding.”
ACN Care Traffic Controllers post the available missions on a password-protected website, where the volunteer pilots can review and sign up for flights at their leisure. Most flights are booked weeks in advance. Pilots may choose to volunteer for multiple legs, if their schedule allows.
“From my own perspective, I have gained invaluable piloting experience by landing and departing major airports, such as Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Columbia, South Carolina,” Mr. Hoffberg said. “Most pilots never have an opportunity to fly into the large metropolitan airports, because of the landing and service fees, which are typically waived for Air Charity Network flights.”
Charles George admits he specifically looks for Chris’ flight requests, so he can see his friend.
A map on the ACN’s website www.AirCharityNetwork.org/about-us identifies which region a pilot would join. Each region has similar pilot qualifications for experience and for pilot license rating, but there are some differences between regions. Also, some regions may have a membership-processing fee to offset the cost of maintaining pilot records. The pilot needs to contact the region for the specific pilot requirements. Pilots may deduct the out-of-pocket costs of the ACN flight mission.
“As a volunteer pilot, it means a lot to me to afford the patient the ability to get needed treatment, even if such is participation in a clinical trial, which may include one or more blind studies,” said Mr. Hoffberg, who is also a patient with cancer. “Many centers participate in these clinical trials, although the drug companies make the final decision where the studies are conducted. This is the reason why a patient may have to use ACN, even though one or more cancer centers are nearby—because a specific treatment is not locally available.”
How to Arrange a Free Flight
Requesting a flight is easy. Call 877-621-7177 to be automatically routed to the patient’s respective region. The Care Traffic Controllers will coordinate the pilots and flights. Information about passenger qualifications as well as volunteer pilot requirements are on the website www.AirCharityNetwork.org.
Chris Nataline, who is still a patient at Tennessee Oncology, says arranging transportation is probably the easiest part of his treatment ordeal.
“They make it so easy. I just call to tell them I have an appointment, and they make the arrangements. It’s like calling a friend to pick me up,” said Chris.
“I know some of the pilots are dealing with their own cancer situations, so I know I’m not the only one. They are angels on earth, and without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
- To qualify for Air Charity Network’s services, passengers must be able to be transported in an unpressurized, small aircraft; have a financial need; and be ambulatory
- This network serves all 50 states plus the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands
- Many of the passengers have cancer and are participating in, or trying to get into, a clinical trial
- Network affiliates are recruiting volunteer drivers who provide the ground transportation to medical appointments