Pilot flies patients to far-away treatment

Dave Bakke

Larry Harman, a pilot from Chatham who volunteers to transport medical patients free of charge, was on his computer, scrolling through a list of patients who needed to get to a far-away hospital, when he saw Mission 13222-1.

Larry is one of four local pilots who volunteers for Angel Flight or for Lifeline, a similar program operating out of Peoria. The others are Steve Barnes, Don Taft and Edward Buckles.

Angel Flight is part of the Air Charity Network. Its pilots — about 1,000 volunteers in the Midwest alone — take people in need to hospitals where they receive treatment.

The people might be transplant patients, in need of cancer treatment, wives of wounded soldiers, or someone whose loved one halfway across the country is seriously ill. Angel flight pilots also flew 7,000 missions to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Mission 13222-1 was a patient with a “lower leg injury from lawnmower” who had to get from Springfield, Mo., to Mount Vernon, Ill., on Monday. Harman clicked the link on his computer screen for more information. That is how he came to be hauling his Grumman Tiger from its hanger at Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in the predawn darkness Monday.

In Springfield, Mo., Braiden Sullivan, 3, was up at 6 a.m. Monday, too excited to sleep. He played with a toy airplane, knowing that in a few hours he and his grandmother would be in a real one. Braiden was Mission 13222-1.

In June, Braiden’s grandfather accidentally drove his lawnmower over the boy’s foot. Braiden lost his right heel and underwent emergency reconstructive surgery at the Cincinnati Shriner’s Hospital. He got there on an Angel Flight. Now, doctors want to check his progress, so he needs to get to Cincinnati again.

Braiden is being raised by his grandparents. Like many families who face serious medical emergencies, Braiden’s grandparents do not have the means to handle it. That is where Angel Flight Central comes in.

(People who might be in need of an Angel Flight should not contact the pilots. Instead, contact Angel Flight Central in Kansas City: 1-877-621-7177.)

After landing in Springfield, Mo., Larry refueled and checked the weather on his flight path to Mount Vernon. Braiden and his mom were there, ready to go.

In the last six years, Larry has flown all kinds of people with all kinds of problems to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., St. Jude’s in Memphis and other hospitals. Angel Flight charges the patients nothing. The pilots pay for fuel.

In the air on the way to Springfield, Mo., Larry says he doesn’t ask the families any questions about their circumstances.

“If they want to talk,” he says, “I’ll listen. But as a rule I don’t pry.”

He mentions a teenaged cancer patient he took from Memphis to Peoria a couple of years ago. She was so nice, and her situation was so sad, that Larry couldn’t help but get attached to her on their flight together to the hospital. The girl died six months later.

When he met Braiden, Larry was taken with the little boy’s energy and ready smile.

“Hi young man!” Larry said, bending down to greet Braiden. “I’m Larry. Where’s my hug?”

Just a glimpse of plastic was visible above Braiden’s right shoe. Otherwise, no one would know. Larry gave Braiden a new baseball cap before the flight. The cap read “Fly With Confidence.”

Once he was airborne, Braiden got a little weepy before falling asleep in the seat next to his grandmother, Nancy Jolley.

In Mount Vernon, an Indianapolis pilot, Mark Owens, was waiting to take Braiden and Nancy to Cincinnati. Larry tries to keep his flights around 500 miles or less. Anything longer is too tiring.

“I did one 900-mile leg once,” he says, “but that was just too much for me.”

He looked up from his lunch in the airport restaurant as Mark’s plane lifted into the blue autumn sky. Larry will probably never see Braiden again. That is part of the code that protects the privacy of the patients. Still, it’s natural to wonder.

“I’m going to call up and see how he did when he came back,” Larry says. “I really liked the kid. He was one speed — full speed ahead.”

Larry refueled his plane again in Mount Vernon. Airplane fuel is going for about $5.50 a gallon. Both airports gave Larry a discount because he is an Angel Flight pilot. He used about 55 gallons on Monday and paid for it himself.

He was back on the ground at Capital Airport early in the afternoon, having flown about 630 miles since dawn.

Somewhere in Cincinnati, Braiden was on his way to see the doctor.

Dave Bakke can be reached at (217) 788-1541