A Day in the Life of an Angel Flight Pilot

From time to time, when I talk about Angel Flight missions and the entire Angel Flight program, I am asked how that all comes about, what makes these flights different from other flights, and how does it all happen. So let me describe how a recent flight unfolded. And while there is a lot of activity that goes on prior to the mission, I will just talk about the flight itself.

The plan for today is to fly from my home base at Lee’s Summit MO (LXT) in suburban Kansas City to Ardmore OK (ADM) to meet Donna, a woman undergoing chemo-therapy for a virulent breast cancer. She will get an Angel Flight with Scott in his Baron from Houston where she is being treated at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. We will meet up at ADM and I will then bring her back to her home in suburban Kansas City MO. (The Angel Flight Central staff that I work with tries to hold flight lengths to no more than 300 miles or so.)


The day starts like most spring flight days. A check with DUATS.com shows that the weather at LXT and ADM is severe VFR, with a scattered to broken layer at 4,000’ enroute. Winds at both ends are strong out of the south, and, sure enough, the winds at altitude are out of the south at about 30 knots. That is true at 3,000 all the way to 12,000 and above. And, since this is spring in the Midwest, we can expect rain showers somewhere. Today they are located in south-central Oklahoma.


I file IFR for 8,000’. (I always file IFR, or VFR with flight following. Why not take advantage of another set of eyes?) The winds are about the same at all altitudes, but my Cessna 182 seems to give me the best compromise between fuel burn and TAS in the 8,000 – 9,000 range. It looks like an enroute time of just under three hours on the way out, and about two and a half coming back home.


I have a mission assistant with me today. If the weight and balance allows, I normally offer the other front seat to another pilot or someone else who might be interested in an Angel Flight mission. Today Ken is flying with me. Ken is a private pilot with about 150 hours of total time, and he is looking for more cross-country experience as well as thinking about starting training on an instrument rating in the near future. So he thinks that this flight will be good experience for him. He is right.


LXT is an untowered airport, so we check the ASOS and taxi out to the end of runway 18. And because there is no control tower to issue our IFR clearance, we need to get that some other way. We have three methods to choose from. We can use the phone and call Columbia Radio (Aren’t cell phones great?). We will tell them that we are at LXT and ready to take off. They will call Kansas City Approach Control and make the arrangements. Then, they will give us our clearance (CRAFT) and tell us what our initial heading should be after takeoff. (CRAFT stands for Clearance Limit; Route of Flight; Altitude; Frequency for the controlling agency; Transponder.)


A check of the approach plates or the Airport Facilities Directory shows that we don’t need to make a phone call. Kansas City Approach Control lists a remote frequency for LXT that we can use to pick up a clearance while we are still on the ground. But it is the third option we choose today. The weather is clear, so we take off VFR and contact Kansas City Departure Control on the published frequency and ask for our clearance as we climb out. They issue a transponder code, and after a very short time, we hear “Radar contact, Cleared to Ardmore as filed. Climb to 4,000. Expect 8,000 in ten minutes“. Then, before we level off at 4,000, we hear, “Climb and maintain 8,000.” We are on our way.


An easy climb to 8,000. Although our flight plan calls for a GPS-direct course to ADM, we also have a sectional chart out on our laps, and we are looking for landmarks as we tick the miles off.


About seventy miles north of Tulsa, Kansas City Center advises us that there are rain showers at twelve o’clock and tells us that we are cleared to deviate left or right of course if we wish. A bit of examination of the weather on the GPS screen tells us that we are better off sliding off to the east a bit. There is a band of rain showers just north of Tulsa, mostly green on our screen, with a bit of yellow, and the band extends to the southwest. It is not too wide, no more than twenty miles or so, but it extends quite a ways to the right of our course. So we turn to the left a touch and soon we are past them.


After we pass Tulsa off to our right, we see that the clouds below us are starting to fill in a bit. Looking straight down, there are a lot of breaks in the cloud layer. But if we look out ahead, it looks pretty solid. I ask Ken what he would do if flying VFR- drop down below the clouds now while there are guaranteed holes, or continue on at altitude and hope for a hole later on. He says that since he can’t tell if he will have a hole later on, he would probably elect to descend now. Fortunately, with an IFR clearance we don’t need to make the choice. We fly on and the weather remains about the same – a pretty thin scattered-to-broken layer below us, lots of holes at about 3,000 or 4,000 msl.


Nearing ADM, we listen to the ATIS and find that the winds are still out of the south at fifteen knots, gusting to twenty-five knots. Although there is a runway 17 at ADM, there is no straight-in approach published for that runway. The closest we can get will be a GPS approach to runway 13. So that is what we ask for, and that is what we receive. But just as we pass BBOBY, the initial approach fix, Fort Worth Center informs us that we are number two for the airport and we will need to hold at the next fix, RRDEE. Well, Ken wants to see what IFR flying is like, so here it is.


After only two turns in the holding pattern we are cleared for the approach. We pass RRDEE, on the course line, and begin a descent. We are in and at of the clouds in no time at all, and runway 13 is lined up right in front of us, on course and on glide slope. I love that Garmin 430 GPS-WAAS system. One last check on the winds, and Ken figures out that he can continue his straight-in approach to Runway 13 and take a right-quartering headwind of 15 to 25 knots. Or he can ask for a left turn to enter a base leg for runway 17 and turn the wind into a direct headwind. He opts for runway 17 and makes a great landing for his first attempt in a Cessna 182.


As we get gas at the local FBO, we see Scott and Donna land and taxi in in Scott’s Baron. Well, Donna will have a bit less space on her second leg of the day.


We get all of Donna’s bags stowed and get her tucked in. Donna makes this trip every three weeks for chemo-therapy, so she has become an old hand at small aircraft. She reminds me that it has only been five months since she and I made her first flight in a small aircraft, when she was making her first trip for therapy. At that time she was very nervous about the entire situation – flying for the first time, going to a strange hospital in a strange city for the first of several rounds of chemo-therapy. Yes, she was pretty nervous. But after a big hug she tells me that because of M.D. Anderson and Angel Flight she feels a lot better about life.


Because ADM has a control tower, we pick up our IFR clearance before we taxi out for takeoff. The takeoff and climbout are totally uneventful. Because we can expect some mild turbulence from the wind blowing over the Oklahoma hills, I opt for a climb out at Vy instead of my normal cruise-climb. Generally I am more interested in groundspeed and less interested in rate of climb. But today my priorities are reversed. The bumps aren’t bad, but I want my passenger as comfortable as possible.


While we are getting buckled in and getting settled, I tell her that we will have some light turbulence on the way out of the Ardmore area, and then again when we reach the Tulsa area. The band of rain showers that we had seen earlier has slowly moved northeast, and they now run from Springfield MO to well west of Tulsa. No way to go around this time. But, as we had seen earlier when we checked weather at ADM, the band of showers was all in the light-to-dark green hue. Not a bit of yellow or orange on the screen. And as we look out the window ahead we can see that all of the clouds are above our altitude. I tell Ken that we can expect a bit of rain and maybe some bumps as we fly under the clouds, but we shouldn’t expect any problems. And Donna? She is asleep. “So Ken,” I say. “Do you think we can keep the ride smooth enough to let her sleep all the home?” We do. The bumps are fairly mild.


The rest of the flight is easy-breezy. Smooth air and we are looking at 155 to 160 on the groundspeed readout. Much nicer than the 120 we had on our first leg. We talk about our arrival at LXT and since the weather will allow it, I plan to accept a visual approach from Kansas City Approach Control. We descent out of the clouds at about 3,000 agl, cancel our IFR clearance, enter the left downwind for runway 18, make sure Donna has her seatbelt firmly on, and make a totally uneventful landing. She wakes up as we taxi in and asks, “Are home?” Just another easy Angel Flight day.


If you want to see yourself in an Angel Flight role, just enter “Angel Flight” into your favorite search engine to find the Angel Flight team that serves your area of the country. Not only do all of the Angel Flight teams need pilots, they all need a lot of ground volunteer help as well. You truly can make a difference in a life.

Don’t just practice until you get it right. Practice until you don’t get it wrong

 

Chris Hope has taught fledgling and experienced pilots for more nearly 40 years, mostly in the Kansas City area. Chris holds flight instructor certificates for single engine land and sea airplanes and multi-engine land planes, as well as for instrument training. He holds ground instructor certificates for advanced and instrument training. Chris is an FAA Gold Seal Instructor and a Master Certified Flight Instructor. Chris serves as a member of the FAASTeam in the Kansas City area. His website is www.ChrisHopeFAAFlightInstructor.com

 

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Comment by Bobby R. Tucker on July 20, 2014 at 3:47pm

Very interesting and detailed flight. I'm glad 'Donna' was comfy on her trip and i pray for her quick recovery. Thanks for sharing your story, i enjoyed it.

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