The mission of Angel Flight West (AFW), and its pilots is to deliver health and hope. The organization brings together pilots willing to donate flights with people who have healthcare or other compelling human needs. According to Cheri Cimmarrusti, Associate Executive Director, Angel Flight West was started in 1983 by a group of pilots in Santa Monica who were “looking to replace the $100 hamburger as a reason to fly.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with $100 hamburgers.) She says chemotherapy treatment for cancer was becoming more common, and it wasn’t available everywhere. Patients often didn’t have the financial, physical, or emotional reserves to deal with repeated commercial flights, so the pilots began offering to fly patients to locations with treatment centers. The group flew its first 15 missions in 1984. In 2022, Angel Flight West flew about 5,000 missions, and in 2023, they expect to hit a milestone of 100,000 missions flown.
The organization was started with an all-volunteer staff. Today, a full-time staff of 12 handles fund-raising, develops relationships with medical centers, and runs the website and call center through which patients and other people needing transport can connect with pilots, volunteer drivers (called Earth Angels), and others who can help get them where they need to go.
Bill Diedrich is one of those flying angels. He got his student pilot’s license in 1980 and flew with that for 30 years as the demands of his family and his farm in the San Joaquin Valley took him in other directions. In 2017, he finally got back into pilot training, earned his pilot certification in June 2018, then bought a plane and earned his instrument certificate. He wanted a way to serve people while gaining experience and time in his plane, and AFW seemed the perfect solution.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down AFW missions for much of 2020, but Diedrich has made up for lost time, flying 101 missions in 2021/2022. He continues to average a flight per week, and he says, “It’s all that I was looking for. I’ve met some amazing people, I’ve improved my proficiency as a pilot, and I’ve gotten to help people. If I’m flying someone south, I look for an opportunity to fly someone else north. Or I’ll wait and fly the passenger home. If I have an internet connection at the airport, I can work while I’m waiting.”
Diedrich says most GA pilots have what it takes to do Angel Flights. You need your own plane or access to a plane. Flights are into regular GA airports, so back country flying skills aren’t needed. The pilot doesn’t need special medical training because medical patients must be ambulatory and they need a medical release from their physician, saying that they are medically stable and able to fly in an unpressurized airplane. There’s no requirement to have an instrument rating, but Diedrich says that having it allows the pilot to complete more missions without interruption. He also notes that passengers sign a waiver of liability to fly with an Angel Flight pilot.
Diedrich says that every mission starts with his calendar. “My wife is incredibly supportive of me doing this. She gives up some of her time with me, so I check with her first. I also give a lot of time working with water policy in California, so I schedule missions around that, too.” Missions are posted with about a week’s notice, so pilots can find flights that fit their schedules. Diedrich uses the AFW app, and looks for flights that are interesting, people he’s flown before, or flights to a new place. He says it’s easy: “A half dozen clicks, and you’re signed up. You get a mission itinerary for the passenger, contact that person, and arrange the flight.” Diedrich flies out of Fresno, and about 90% of his missions are to Oakland/Palo Alto or to southern California—to City of Hope Cancer Center and San Gabriel Oncology Center—and occasionally to San Diego. Most missions are 400–500 miles, although he has flown as far as Klamath and Eugene, Oregon. If he’s headed to north Idaho to visit relatives, he’ll also check if there’s a mission he can fly on the trip.
Diedrich treasures the human connection he finds through Angel Flight missions, the people he’s met and helped. One of his most memorable flights: “I was picking up in El Monte. I had had two passengers who were in clinical trials at the City of Hope, and I knew they would be at El Monte airport at the same time, so I was able to introduce them. To watch them embrace and chat about what they were going through was so amazing. All of us who suffer pain or distress in our lives, when you share that with another, it’s a profound human bond. Both are doing well by the way. I’m flying one of them tomorrow.”
For other pilots considering Angel Flights, Diedrich’s number one piece of advice is to just sign up! “You can fly one mission or as many as you’re comfortable with. There is a sign-up process, but it’s minimal. It’s also a great idea to fly a mission or two with another AF pilot as their assistant, to learn the ropes and how it happens.”
Diedrich continues to value the flight experience he gets from Angel Flight missions. “In the last year, I have 229 hours in my plane. Pilots know that’s a lot of time and a lot of experience. That’s special.” But what’s most special for him is the people. “The gratitude these passengers have is a blessing that I would not miss. I won’t be able to fly forever, but while I can, I’ll do as much of this work as I can. There are just a lot of real human moments that I wouldn’t want to miss out on.”