Pilots Donate Air Time To Sick Patients

CLEVELAND (AP) - Sick people who need quick transportation to distant hospitals can rely on volunteer organizations of pilots who donate their time.

The flyers include Mike Cheung, a chemical engineering professor whose hobby is flying. He recently flew Kristen Starling and her 2-year-old son, Liam, from Charleston, W.Va., to Cincinnati for surgery to save the hearing in the boy's left ear.

After guiding his four-seat Mooney 231 through a crisp, clear sky, Cheung returned to the University of Akron for a research meeting by lunchtime.

"You know you're just making their life a little bit easier," Cheung said. "At least you hope you are."

The pilots are on their own time and fly at their own expense helping patients who otherwise couldn't afford the airfare or physically manage the long trips.

Volunteer pilot Bill James says he gets more out of his work than the patients he transports.

"It's been better for me, seeing these people, their guts, their courage. What this really teaches you is, you really have no problems," he told The Plain Dealer for a story Sunday.

James and Cheung are among the busiest flyers for AirLifeLine, one of three volunteer pilot organizations operating in Ohio.

AirLifeLine is one of about 20 humanitarian flying organizations under an umbrella group called the Air Care Alliance. There are about as many similar groups that aren't alliance members.

Last year AirLifeLine flew nearly 4,000 flights, carrying 8,500 passengers to more than 400 destinations. Patients saved an estimated $4 million in travel costs.

"I'm sure it saved us a ton of money," said Nellie Gozdowski of suburban Toledo. She and her 9-year-old daughter, Lindsey, have been passengers for at least a dozen of the 75 flights Cheung has flown for AirLifeLine since 1991.

Lindsey has a birth deformity that requires continuous reconstructive surgery on her face and skull -- 25 operations in the last five years -- and regular trips to the New York University Medical Center.

Most patients become AirLifeLine passengers because they can't get the special treatment where they live, and transportation isn't typically covered by medical insurance. Passengers must demonstrate a financial need and be medically stable enough to fly.

AirLifeLine is privately funded, as are most of the organizations. Flights are donated, and the nonprofit's operating expenses are covered by contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations.

Other volunteer pilot organizations operating in Ohio include Angel Flight America and LifeLine Pilots.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)