Friday, August 15, 2008

Angel Flight Crashes

It has been a troubling summer for Angel Flight organizations across the country. Angel Flight, for those who don't know, is a collection of volunteer organizations which provide free transportation to medical patients in need. Volunteer pilots provide the transportation in their own airplanes or in planes that are rented. The pilots receive no reimbursement for their time, fuel, or operating costs. The patients and those travelling with them pay nothing. Most planes used in Angel Flight are small (4 or 6 seat) single engine propeller driven airplanes that operate as "General Aviation". Pilots tend to be those (like me) who obtained licenses for recreation rather than for an avocation.

I am a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight of Georgia and I have had the pleasure of flying many successful missions. I have flown sick children and babies receiving treatment for misshapen heads. I flew one gentleman who had received back surgery in Atlanta and was returning home to Minnesota. I also flew several relief missions to the Gulf Coast after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, including one very special flight where I had the privilege of returning a 3-person medical team from the Gulf Coast to their homes in Charlottesville, VA. The value of these charity flights cannot be overstated. Shortly after 9/11, when all other civilian aircraft were still grounded (including the airlines and the cargo planes) , charity flights returned to the air under special rules so that they could transport much needed blood, search dogs, and other supplies in to New York and Washington. There are thousands of charity flights flown every month all across the US.

There are about a dozen organizations in the US that organize charity flights, many operating under the name "Angel Flight", but also "Mercy Flight" and "Lifeline Pilots". These organizations have had an outstanding safety record in the 25 or so years they have been operating. Now, all of a sudden, there have been three fatal crashes in as many months.

On June 3 a TBM 850 crashed near Iowa City. The plane was carrying 2-year-old Sydney Blanton and her mother Christina on a mission co-ordinated by Angel Flight Central. Sydney made the trip to Iowa City several times a year to receive treatment for club foot. The pilot, Lewis Martin, and the mother were hospitalized after the crash and later released. Sydney died shortly after the crash. Gazette Online has the news story.

The second crash was July 17 at Vandenberg Airport in Tampa, Florida. 81-year-old pilot Harlan Northcott, who had been flying Angel Flight missions for many years, was transporting patient Patricia Snyder and 15-year-old family friend Tyler McLellan in his Bonanza. This mission was co-ordinated by Angel Flight Southeast. All three died in the crash. Bay News 9 has the story.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday August 12, a Bonanza crashed in Easton, MA. Pilot Joseph Baker was flying a mission co-ordinated by Angel Flight Northeast to transport Robert and Donna Gregory to Boston so that Robert could receive treatment for cancer . All three died. This story has received a tremendous amount of publicity this week, probably because the crash happened near a shopping center. The AP has the story, and there are many other stories you can find via Google News.

So what is happening? I wish I could point to a single reason for this sudden catastrophic surge. Having worked with both Angel Flight of Georgia and Lifeline Pilots, I know that these groups place safety as their top priority. Missions are regularly canceled due to weather and less frequently mechanical difficulties. Cancellations are common and the pilots are never pressured to complete a mission. I know that I can call the morning of a mission and say "I can't fly you today" and there will be no negative repercussions. Indeed, I feel under less pressure to fly an Angel Flight mission than I do to fly my own family on a long-planned vacation. Potential passengers are always informed of the possibility of a cancellation, and that the transportation is not guaranteed. There is simply no reason to take a risk with these flights.

Before any flight begins the pilot asks the passengers to sign a liability waiver. This waiver is intended to protect the pilot and the organization from legal action should anything go wrong. Until this summer these waivers have never been needed. With three crashes so close together I am expecting and fearing the inevitable lawsuits, and I know the entire community of charitable flying will be watching to see the outcome. If the waivers don't hold up in court it will probably spell the end of charitable flying. No one will want to take the liability risk. Even if the liability waivers hold up, the FAA may start paying closer attention to these flights, which means there could be additional regulations. No doubt these regulations will be intended to improve the safety of these flights, but in most cases they may end up making such flights more difficult without providing any actual safety improvements.

My sincerest sympathies to all the families affected by these tragedies.

No comments: