“Port Alberni traffic, this is Angel Flight, 2,500 feet over the bomber base at Sproat Lake. We’re inbound for landing.”
The pronouncement, heard over the radio frequency for the Alberni Valley Regional Airport, is one of more than 2,000 special flights that have taken place around Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland coast in the past 20 years.
The pilot landed in Port Alberni to pick up a patient needing non-emergent transportation to a larger community for medical treatment. The flight brought the patient quickly and in comfort to their destination.
And it was all done at no cost to the patient.
That’s the whole idea behind Angel Flight, says founder Jeff Morris.
A retired pilot and flight engineer, Morris was living in Sidney, B.C. in 2000 when he met a man trying to set up an Angel Flight, but he didn’t have a background in aviation. Morris agreed to help him and in April 2002 he launched what is essentially a volunteer airline that transports ambulatory adult cancer patients as well as children up to age 15 with other diseases living in remote areas to urban centres for medical treatment.
Morris began with eight volunteer pilots; he has had 88 different pilots fly with Angel Flight BC, and presently has 32 on the active roster (there is another Angel Flight that Morris helped set up in Edmonton, Alta., as well as one in the Kootenays that is not affiliated with Morris’s business). Clients request to book a flight and Morris puts out the word to pilots in the region. Pilots are reimbursed for their fuel costs but they volunteer their time and aircraft.
Ted Eeftink was in hospital in Tofino facing cancer treatment when his wife Tracy heard about Angel Flight. Eeftink is a retired fire chief for the District of Ucluelet and assistant lead with Majestic Ocean Kayaking, where his wife has been general manager for more than two decades. The couple was facing a nine-hour, one-way commute by car and ferry to get Ted to Vancouver for treatment, so learning about Angel Flight was a relief, he said.
“It was pretty incredible, because we were figuring out the logistics of getting me from Ucluelet to Vancouver. It’s a huge impact for Tracy and I to coordinate our lives because she’s still working,” Eeftink said.
He contacted Morris and his team through the website www.angelflight.ca and soon, his first trip to Vancouver was booked. When his five-day treatment was finished, he called the Angel Flight office and all arrangements were made to get him home.
“It’s totally amazing.”
Bruce Burley is a commercial pilot from the Lower Mainland who owns a Cessna C210 based at Boundary Bay Airport in Delta. He is one of 32 volunteer pilots on Angel Flight’s active list: there are 15 based in Vancouver, 13 in Victoria and one each in Qualicum Beach, Port McNeill, Pitt Meadows and Abbotsford.
On a warm summer day in early July, Burley waited patiently for the fog at Tofino-Long Beach Airport to lift so he could pick up Eeftink and bring him back to Boundary Bay to prepare for another cancer treatment in Vancouver. He was looking at Port Alberni’s airport as a backup, if the coastal fog wouldn’t lift.
Burley started flying with Angel Flight four years ago, after a fellow pilot and IFR flight instructor told him about the program. Burley, who is retired, applied to join the Angel Flight team. “Pilots love to fly and I have a lot of time on my hands,” he said.
In four years he has flown about 40 flights. “Before COVID we were quite busy; I was getting one or two flights per month,” he said. “It slowed down over COVID and now it’s picked up again.”
When the fog lifted, he was off to Tofino. Pilot safety comes first with Angel Flight, Morris said. If the conditions aren’t above minimums, or the pilot doesn’t feel comfortable flying in the weather of the day, flights are delayed or cancelled. For many patients, like Eeftink, the wait is better than a commute by land. Clients are still asked to have a backup plan in case a flight needs to be cancelled.
On this particular day the weather cleared up, and a red carpet was laid out for Eeftink as Burley taxied close to the Boundary Bay terminal.
“I’m very grateful they have this service out there,” said Eeftink. “I’m very happy with all the people involved, especially the pilots.”
Burley said knowing the time he spends volunteering will save a client from a difficult commute is an unparalleled feeling.
“I’m blessed to have a plane. The fact I can use it to help people out, it’s really fulfilling,” Burley said.
The rest of the aviation community has embraced Angel Flight as well. Pilots don’t pay landing or parking fees at the airports where they pick up and drop of clients, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) allows them to use the South Terminal at no cost and have designated parking bays for Angel Flight aircraft. Nav Canada has also agreed to a unique call sign, “AN,” for Angel Flights.
“That means we are recognized on ATC (air traffic control) and our pilots frequently receive the ‘thank you for what you do’ message from controllers,” Morris said.