Wednesday, November 25 , 2015, 3:05 am | Fair 54º

Hope Soars with the Pilots of Angel Flight West in the Cockpit

Reception honors the high-flying mission of the volunteer-driven organization to provide free air travel for people in need

Angel Flight West CEO Laura Long, from left, Keiko and honoree Roger Durham, and Executive Director Alan Dias at a reception honoring AFW held at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery.
Angel Flight West CEO Laura Long, from left, Keiko and honoree Roger Durham, and Executive Director Alan Dias at a reception honoring AFW held at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery.  (Rochelle Rose / Noozhawk photo)

By Rochelle Rose, Noozhawk Contributing Writer | @NoozhawkSociety |

[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery.]

The venerable Marina Room at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara served as the perfect gathering place for an early evening reception for the Santa Barbara Community Services Council of Angel Flight West.

The setting sun streaked through the ocean-facing windows as more than 100 pilots, medical providers, board members, donors and interested community members enjoyed wine, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and live music by pianist Marc Lebrun.

Founded in 1983, Angel Flight West is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization that arranges free, nonemergency air travel for children and adults with serious medical conditions and other compelling needs. Its network of 1,600 pilots throughout the Western states donate their aircraft, fuel, piloting skills and all flying costs to help families and individuals in need, enabling them to receive vital medical treatment that might otherwise be inaccessible because of financial, health or geographic limitations.

The ability to travel easily across the country is something that many people may take for granted, but for those whose lives are in turmoil, the financial, physical and emotional burdens can make ordinary trips extraordinarily difficult.

Examples of their passengers include a child ravaged by cancer who needs specialized lifesaving treatment at a hospital 300 miles away. A domestic-violence survivor longs to start a new life in another city but can’t afford to leave. Hearing- or sight-impaired children have the opportunity to go to a camp once a year, where they can be among others with the same challenges. A patient with endometrial cancer lives in a rural area that would require a six-hour drive after difficult chemotherapy treatments. The pilots also ferry harvested corneas and other organs to facilitate much-needed transplants. These are just a few of the people to whom Angel Flight West offers help.

Many of the Santa Monica- and Santa Barbara-based pilots were present for the reception. They give freely of their time and money, restoring health and hope to those needing medical care. Their reward is the joy of knowing how much of a difference they’ve made. These private pilots fly thousands of missions annually covering 13 Western states, including Alaska and Hawaii. The average cost associated with a flight is $400.

Sponsors included Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree, MarBorg Industries, Fred Gluck, Ronald Hays, Norm and Jane Haberman, Pueblo Radiology and Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care.

John Blankenship dons a World War II pilot uniform. (Rochelle Rose / Noozhawk photo)
John Blankenship dons a World War II pilot uniform. Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery. (Rochelle Rose / Noozhawk photo)

Established in 2007, the AFW Santa Barbara Community Services Council is comprised of Chairman Martin Bell, Keiko Dunham, Courtney Harstein, Melinda Johansson, John Kendall, Don Margolin, Jim McElroy, Michelle Meredith, Jaclyn Penso, Amy Rondepierre, Dr. John Wrench and Nick Zietlow. A 20-year pilot for AFW, Alan Dias became Angel Flight West executive director in 2008, succeeding Roger Dunham, M.D., chair emeritus.

Dunham was honored at the reception for his decades-long tenure and contributions to Angel Flight West. He is a private internal medicine physician and an AFW volunteer pilot who flies a Cessna 182. He also serves on the board of the Angel Flight West Foundation.

His longtime friend John Blankenship donned a World War II pilot uniform to recognize their mutual service in the U.S. Navy and to present him with a bottle of wine that had been signed by many distinguished World War II pilots.

“When Angel Flight West began in 1983, our mission was so unique that we sometimes had trouble convincing health-care providers that we would and could do what we promised — fly people in our own planes for free. It almost seemed too good to be true,” Dias said. “Today, no one questions our capabilities or our commitment. Not only have we earned the gratitude of our passengers, we’ve earned the trust and respect of a long list of organizations — large research hospitals, children’s hospitals, VA hospitals, specialized treatment centers and small rural health-care centers ... children’s protective services, and domestic violence shelters ... special camps for children with medical needs.

“When someone’s transportation needs are critical, organizations both large and small know they can depend on us. We’re proud to help them.”

At Angel Flight West headquarters in Santa Monica, a ground team manages a complex system of matching pilots with passengers, coordinating the flights, spreading the word among referral agencies and continually recruiting new volunteers. It is much like running a small airline, further complicated by the extra care and expense of working with sometimes fragile passengers plus their families, as well as medical and hospital personnel. The beneficiaries of the flight — the passengers and their families, and the health-care organizations — pay nothing at all.

The pilots include engineers, scientists, young entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and corporate executives, as well as retired commercial pilots and young entrepreneurs.

The AFW regional board includes Laura Long, chair, of Bigfork, Mont.; Stephen Bobko-Hillenaar, vice chair, of Carefree, Ariz.; Mark Wolper, vice chair, of Burbank; Joseph Shelton, secretary, of Watsonville; Fred Allen Leistiko, treasurer, of Kalispell, Mont.; Stephen Danz, immediate past chair, of Los Angeles; Charles Finkel, at large, of Anderson; Kent Allebrand of Santa Barbara; Skip Armstrong of Monterey; Roger Dunham of Santa Barbara; John Ferrell of Menlo Park; Ruben Gamerberg of Bel Air; Hugh Hunter Handsfield of Seattle, Wash.; Mark Lorenzen of Kalispell; Hal Morley of Lake Oswego, Ore.; Dean Myers of Tigard, Ore.; Leah Vriesman of Hermosa Beach; and Warren Wood of Carmel Valley.

For more information about Angel Flight West, click here or call Dias at 310.390.2958.

Noozhawk contributing writer Rochelle Rose can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews, @NoozhawkBiz and @NoozhawkSociety. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook and Noozhawk on Pinterest.

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