Angel Flights: The sun never sets on humble pilots who lift sick to far-off care

— Photo by Terence L. Kindlon

Sunrise at 10,000 feet (and climbing), from inside Terence L. Kindlon’s Cessna 340 in 2012. Kindlon recalls that this was en route to an Angel Flight pickup “in, I think,” Watertown, New York, for a flight to Boston’s Logan Airport.

“There was a gentleman with advanced cancer, who basically had been told by the doctors that there was nothing more they could do,” Albany attorney Terence L. Kindlon recalled.

“His family traditionally gathered every year at Block Island. He was in such delicate condition that he couldn’t ride in a car that far. But if you’re in an airplane and it’s a calm day up there in the sky, it’s like sitting in a chair for an hour.”

In his spare time, Kindlon volunteers as a pilot with Angel Flight Northeast, a not-for-profit organization that brings patients, free of charge, to medical treatment and on compassion flights.

So Kindlon flew the patient from Albany to one last family reunion.

It was breezy and sunny when they touched down on the island and got out to greet the patient’s family. “It was a moving scene,” Kindlon said. “I recall more than a dozen family members there — at least three generations — and it was obvious that my ailing passenger was their patriarch, and that they were thrilled to see him.”

Not long afterward, the man died. Kindlon later received a thank-you note saying that the family had been so grateful that they asked mourners to consider making donations to Angel Flight Northeast.

Local volunteer pilots

Kindlon is not the only local pilot who volunteers with Angel Flight Northeast.

Two others are Dale Thuillez, a semi-retired attorney with Thuillez, Ford, Gold, Butler & Monroe, LLP in Albany, and Guilderland native Scott Stevens, a professional engineer and the president of Dimension Fabricators in Glenville.

Thuillez (pronounced “Twillis”), 66, has been volunteering for Angel Flight NE for about eight years. He estimates that he has made 50 flights for the organization in his Pilatus PC-12.

“I love to fly,” Thuillez said. “And, in order to maintain your skills, you must fly regularly. You might as well do it for a good cause.”

What Angel Flight Northeast does

All of the nearly 1,000 private pilots who have been approved to work with Angel Flight Northeast volunteer their time and fuel and use their own planes for the flights, which Angel Flight refers to as “missions.” The air travel is completely free for patients and their travel companions.

Anyone in need of transport to medical treatment can apply, according to Barbara Sica, head of marketing and communications for Angel Flight Northeast. Many patients are referred by social workers, doctors, civic organizations, or even through word-of-mouth from other patients.            

“You may be sitting there waiting for your own medical care, and you get to chatting with the person next to you, and they ask how you got there, and that’s how they find out about Angel Flight,” Sica said.

Patient requests are listed online on the group’s website, and pilots with time available check the list for flights they might want to take.

The organization has never turned down a request, according to its website. In addition, the group will fly people “for as long and as often as they need to travel, with no limit whatsoever to the number of flights.”

Why the pilots do it

Stevens has been volunteering since 2007 and estimates that he has made about 40 flights to date in his Piper Meridian, which is a six-seat single-engine turboprop. “Recently, however,” he said, “that four-letter word, ‘W-O-R-K.’ keeps getting in the way.”

Fully focused, Scott Stevens pilots his Piper Meridian on an Angel Flight. Making such flights for people who really need it, he says, keeps everyday problems in perspective. — Photo from Scott Stevens

 

Stevens, 57, notes that this kind of volunteer work — up close with people who in many cases are desperately ill — makes it easy for pilots to keep any difficulties they may have in perspective.

“Some people get upset when, you know, they have a fender bender,” he said. “My feeling is, hey, you’ve got no problems!”

He also likes that volunteers get to see “places you’d probably have almost no occasion to ever visit otherwise. I mean, why would you go to Houlton, Maine? You wouldn’t. Well, this guy is ill and he needs help. OK, well, let’s go to Houlton, Maine, then!”

Stevens said that he doesn’t “get real excited about just going out and taking a ride in his airplane.” He does, though, like “the aspect that you need to be completely attentive to what you’re doing.” It forces you, he says, to forget about things like accounts receivable and workload. “You’ve got to be focused.”

A dream deferred

For Kindlon, becoming a pilot was a dream he had had since childhood. “There’s an airplane pilot gene that has yet to be discovered, but we all know it’s there,” he said. “My earliest memories as a young boy after World War II are of looking up at the sky at airplanes.”

It took him many years to achieve that dream. He joined the Marines during the Vietnam War, and the military had agreed to send him to flight school. But while serving as an enlisted man in Vietnam he was shot in the head during the Tet Offensive; in the days immediately afterward, he suffered a number of seizures.

Corporal Terence L. Kindlon in Vietnam in 1968. He was shot in the head during the Tet Offensive, delaying for two decades his dream of being a pilot.

 

The federal government then told Kindlon he would have to wait 20 years and then submit documentation to show that he had been seizure-free for two decades, in order to get medical clearance to become a pilot. So he got that clearance in 1988, exactly 20 years after being shot, and has had it since. 

“I have been flying ever since without so much as a headache,” he said.

Kindlon, 68, said that this volunteer work is a win-win situation for patients and pilots. “If you’re a pilot who likes to fly,” he said, “then this is a good reason to use your airplane that’s not strictly for self-indulgence. You get to fly and somebody gets to travel easily.”

Kindlon estimated that he is now up to 34 missions in his twin-engine pressurized Cessna. His goal is one per month, he said, “but that’s not as easy as it sounds.”

He has had a number of missions scrubbed at the last minute — “and I mean the last possible minute.” This has included several where he has been in the airplane, engines turning, ready for departure, when he has received a call saying that the patient was too sick to fly or something else had gone awry. Factor in mechanical problems, unsafe weather conditions, and scheduling conflicts and, says Kindlon, “I always feel lucky when I’m actually strapped in and en route.”

He is now at a point in his life where he is beginning to cut back his work, Kindlon said. “So I should be able to take more flights.”

“I take these all the time,” said Terence Kindlon of photos from the cockpit, this one during an early morning takeoff for an Angel Flight. “It's very hard to resist.” — Photo by Terence L. Kindlon

 

How it works

To be approved as an Angel Flight Northeast pilot, you must fulfill a variety of conditions related to hours of experience and meet insurance requirements as well as have an instrument rating, Kindlon said.

Pilots must have a valid medical certificate and a current flight review (an endorsement from an instructor following a performance test), the group’s website notes. Pilots cannot be 75 or older unless accompanied on missions by a younger, qualified co-pilot. Angel Flight Northeast also has requirements related to the aircraft’s registration, licensing, and airworthiness; the craft must pass inspection every year.

Patients need to be medically stable and ambulatory.

“What I do,” Thuillez said, “is go online and look, and I try to match who needs what with my schedule and of course the weather. And I’ll just say, ‘OK, I’ll do this flight,’ and then I’ll get an email back with the contact information. And then I call the people, and then we just go do it.”

Distance not the only factor

It’s not always that patients are too sick to travel long distances by car, Stevens said. Sometimes an illness has exhausted all of a patient’s financial resources, and he can’t afford to get to his treatment, even when it is not too far away.

Stevens recalled one Springfield, Massachusetts police officer whom he flew two or three times to Boston for cancer treatment.

Ready for takeoff: Scott Stevens’s Piper Meridian is set to spread its Angel wings. Stevens enjoys seeing places he wouldn’t otherwise visit. — Photo from Scott Stevens

 

“You might say Springfield to Boston isn’t very far. But he couldn’t work any more, and his wife’s income was the only one keeping groceries on the table. If she drove him there, she’d have to take time off from work,” he said. “And when they got to Boston, assuming the ’83 Pontiac would even get that far, how would they park? And where would they stay? And would she still have a job when she got back?

“This way,” he continued, “we fly him to Boston, and then they also have what they call Earth Angels who pick you up at the airport and drive you to your appointment and wait for you and drive you back.”

The police officer’s wife was able to keep her job, but the officer has since died, Stevens said.

The role of the Earth Angel

Sica of Angel Flight NE also underscored the importance of the Earth Angels, who solve the question for patients of how to get from the airport to the medical facility.

“Oftentimes the Earth Angel will wait and then bring the patient back again to the airport so that he or she can catch the flight home,” she said. “It’s really overlooked, but it’s a huge component.”

In many cases the Earth Angels — who may sit with a patient in the waiting room, particularly if the patient has no travel companions — can develop a close bond with patients in a short time.

All that is needed to become an Earth Angel, Sica said, is a valid driver’s license, a good working vehicle, and a lot of compassion.

Travel beyond the Northeast

There are various Angel Flight organizations around the country that work independently, but they do sometimes cooperate to take patients long distances, Sica said. Another way that the organization is able to accommodate patients who need to travel a long way or in difficult weather conditions is by partnering with several commercial airlines; at this point, these are JetBlue, Cape Air, and PenAir.

Kindlon noted that, after the Boston Marathon bombing, a number of marathoner amputees who needed to visit a specialist in Florida for physical therapy practice in using their new “running blade” prosthetics were flown on Angel Flight Northeast’s commercial airline partner JetBlue.

Like old friends meeting for the first time

Kindlon and Thuillez, who have known one another for almost 45 years, since law school, made headlines locally a couple of years ago for their proximity to an unfortunate incident in Angel Flight history.

Kindlon accompanied Thuillez on an Angel Flight mission in May 2013. They picked up a cancer patient and his wife at the Rome Air Base and flew them to Boston’s Logan International Airport.

“For me it had an extra dimension, because the patient turned out to be an ex-Marine,” Kindlon said, “and he had been in the same part of Vietnam that I had. We didn’t know each other, but we were like old friends meeting for the first time, because we had been to many of the same places and known many of the same people.”

They left the patient and his wife in Boston and flew back. That night, Kindlon got a call from a local news station saying there had been a crash, he recalled. The plane carrying the patient and his wife back home had crashed, killing them and the pilot.

“It was so sad,” Kindlon said.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in January 2015 on the crash, saying that it was caused by a series of actions the pilot took in response to a mistake he had made earlier, when loading the instrument approach into the plane’s global positioning system; these corrective actions led to stress that exceeded the plane’s design limits and caused the craft to break in midair.

Safety

Have they themselves had any close calls?

Kindlon said no, that he is a very conservative pilot. Every year, he says, he goes to a training facility in Illinois for three days of work on a simulator, making his way out of simulated emergencies, in which the airplane is on fire, the engines quit, or the landing gear won’t go down.

“I’ve never had a real emergency, but the training prepares you so that if you did, it would be second nature to respond to it appropriately,” he said.

On the weekends, “if I’m not doing anything, I go down to the airport,” Kindlon says, meaning the South Albany Airport in Selkirk, where he keeps his plane. There he does a series of practice takeoffs and landings, “because taking off and landing is usually the most dangerous part of any flight.”

And every year he has the plane “torn apart and inspected down to the last rivet.” The mechanic who does it is south of the Capital Region, in Sidney, and the mechanic flies the plane back to Albany himself when he’s finished, which Kindlon says his wife appreciates. “It shows her that he’s confident in his work,” he said.

Stevens also said he had not had any close calls. “That’s where my engineering background comes in, you know? The way to not have that happen is to not be in the position where it can happen,” he said.

His closest call, Stevens said, was the time he flew a patient — a young man of about 18 who had had a heart transplant — and his brother from White Plains to Buffalo for a one-year checkup. “The forecast was for the most unbelievable winds you could imagine, and, as we got down and we got close, it began to knock us around, enough to knock the glasses off your face.”

Stevens turned around and told the young men to tighten their seat belts. The landing, he said, “was the most difficult I’ve ever done.”

After a safe landing, he looked back at his passengers and said, “You don’t know how hard that was.” The patient smiled broadly and said, “Are you kidding me? That was the most fun I’ve ever had!”

Balancing safety concerns against the importance of the missions is always crucial, Stevens and Kindlon agreed.

Stevens has turned down many requests from Angel Flight and even scrapped flights “on the day of” because of the weather forecast. He said he’s been in the position of telling a patient, “I know that in your heart you absolutely need to make this appointment today, but I don’t feel comfortable.”

Kindlon related a “corny saying” that often comes to his mind: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”


 

More humble help

Dale Thuillez said that, in addition to Angel Flight Northeast, he flies occasionally for a newer, similar not-for-profit organization called Patient Airlift Services, known as PALS, and for a group that serves wounded veterans, called Veterans Airlift Command.

Also, after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, he was contacted by a charitable organization to see if he could fly medical supplies and doctors to Haiti, and patients out on the return flights. His plane, the Pilatus PC-12, he says, is “designed with a long range and an ability to carry heavy loads and to land on short and unimproved fields.”

Dale Thuillez at the controls of his Pilatus PC-12. He loves to fly and notes a pilot has to maintain his skills with regular flights. “You might as well do it for a good cause,” he said.

 

He and other Pilatus pilots, and pilots of other planes with similar characteristics, were contacted “because we had to fly from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to different locations in Haiti with substantial loads.” They needed to be able to land in small fields or on roads to deliver supplies and medical staff to remote areas that had been cut off from the capital by the earthquake.

“I flew to a very small airport in Jacmel on the south coast three days in a row,” Thuillez said. “After delivering our cargo and doctors, we flew people back to Florida. Happy people.”

Kindlon told The Enterprise about Thuillez, “I am a big fan of Dale’s. He graciously does a lot of good things —such as his volunteer flights to Haiti — very humbly and quietly.”

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