Provider Profile: Angels from above

Pilot Mike McFarlane, patient Alan Simpson, Earth Angel Les Aisen at Essendon Airport Yvan Drake. Credit: Angel Life Flight
Angel Flight, an Australian charity that was the brainchild of Bill Bristow, co-ordinates non-emergency medical flights to help people living in remote areas of the country to access the medical care they need. Since its inception, 14 years ago, Angel Flight has completed 20,583 flights. By Mandy Langfield
In 2003, Bill Bristow created Angel Flight, launching a network of aircraft and pilots that he made available to patients travelling to far-flung medical facilities around Australia. The aircraft are not air ambulances, and do not carry medical staff – instead they allow patients of any age to travel as passengers to get to the medical care they need. The aircraft will carry blood and blood products, and medical drugs, to patients who need them. Because there are no medical staff onboard, patients must be ambulatory and medically stable, as well as physically able enough to climb into and out of the aircraft.
In order to gain access to the service, a patient must be nominated by a health professional familiar with the patient’s condition. There are over 3,000 health professionals registered with Angel Flight who are able to make a referral. In order to be eligible for referral, the patient has to be either medically or financially disadvantaged – so, for example, the family might have been devastated by medical bills, accidents or other chronic conditions.
The flights are general aviation light aircraft; most have between four and six seats, and will either be high wing or low wing – hence the need for the patient to be physically able to climb into and out of the aircraft doors. Julie-Anne Scott, flight co-ordinator and media officer for Angel Flight, expanded: “We have 3,200 registered pilots and aircraft Australia wide. Some of these pilots own or have access to more than one aircraft. The Australian aviation community are a generous bunch of people who always volunteer their time and aircraft when the need arises.”
In 2003 when the charity first began operations, pilots volunteered their time, planes and fuel. Thanks to private donations that fund the charity, the fuel, which costs around AU$200 per flight hour, is now covered. The donations come from a number of sources, including clubs, companies, estates and individuals. Not only are the donations used to pay for fuel, but also to provide a discount towards the cost of providing a commercial flight to a patient if poor weather means that the light aircraft typically utilised can’t take off. Approximately 85 per cent of its revenue is spent on the delivery of the service.
Angel Flight’s ground volunteers (Earth Angels) provide car transportation between the city airports and medical facilities or accommodation. Most drives occur in the capital cities or some of the larger regional towns. Scott explained: “It can be a great support to the passengers to have a friendly face waiting to meet them at the airport, saving the passenger the hassle of trying to navigate public transport in a strange city. Volunteer driver registrations are over 4,500.”
The charity operates out of a small rented office in Fortitude Valley in Brisbane. “Angel Flight CEO Marjorie Pagani oversees the operation,” said Scott, “and there are six paid staff including the CEO.” Four full-time flight co-ordinators – Jasmine Thomas, Riana Brown, Fiona Soderberg and Danielle Sanchez; and media officer/flight co-ordinator Julie-Anne Scott. A volunteer called Maurie Hand has been coming into the office every Tuesday for 10 years to do the mail.
In recent years, Angel Flight has expanded its assistance to the disadvantaged rural people by offering compassionate flights for those who don’t have the means to travel to see loved ones in distant hospitals, often with terminal illnesses. Said Scott: “We have been able to fly children to hospitals to see ill parents or siblings, and others who want to return home for their final weeks.”
Bill Bristow spoke to AMR about the charity
What made you want to start Angel Flight?
I was flying in the US with other pilots and they were sharing with me the extraordinary feeling they experienced through charity flying. They are able to fly – their greatest love – while at the same time help people going through hard times. I realised then Australia badly needed a similar service. With about 30 per cent of the Australian population living outside metropolitan areas, a very large number of people do not have easy access to major hospitals and treatment centres. I decided I had to do something about it and returned home with a new sense of purpose.
Was it a complicated process gaining the necessary permissions to fly?
Angel Flight is a charity which co-ordinates private, non-commercial, flights; it is not an aviation organisation. The flights are undertaken by pilots, on a private basis, who are flying their own aircraft. Angel Flight relies on the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for proper licensing and testing of pilots according to the statutory requirements set by CASA. All pilots are required to have substantially more than the minimum experience required by CASA for the carriage of non-paying passengers on private flights. Prior to the commencement of the charity, I obtained a ruling from CASA to the effect that the proposed service and flights did fall into the ‘private flight’ category, so with CASA’s positive ruling, the charity was able to refer the passengers to the pilots, who would then volunteer to undertake the flight for those people.
What are your hopes for the future of the charity?
Angel Flight is supported tremendously by community organisations, private donors, and bequests – often from people we have helped. We do not receive, nor ask for, government funding, and nor do we spend any monies on fundraising, marketing, promotions, or company assets (other than our staff, computers, and the necessary facilities to operate out of our rented office in Brisbane). Our donor funds are spent on the provision of the flights and drives undertaken by the volunteers. This support is increasing as our flight numbers increase. We have now flown about 60,000 people from areas across Australia, and I know that this service will continue to grow, as it has for the past 14 years. The future looks very bright for Angel Flight’s long-term future, continuing to assist more and more of our rural friends to access city medical treatment without the necessity for arduous and costly road trips.