The volunteer pilots of PALS/SkyHope provide free flights for medical patients from all walks of life and, as Director of Operations Karen Krolikowski likes to say, they fly to help heal “the mind, body, and soul” of their passengers. Since its founding in 2010, PALS pilots have donated over 27,000 flights, across more than 6 million miles, transporting patients for medical diagnosis or treatment, transporting family members to support a wounded veteran, delivering service dogs for patients in need, and supporting relief efforts for natural and manmade disasters.
Mark Hanson has been flying for PALS almost since he learned to fly. Flying had always been on his bucket list, but he was busy with his career, driving change in a very large company. (He jokes that large organizations are “like battleships with very small rudders.”) Then, in 2008, the recession hit, and his company was managing itself, so he decided it was time to fly. He started flight lessons in 2009, completed his private license in 60 days, got his instrument rating in 30 days more, his multi-engine in 30 more, and completed his commercial license in 5 more months. By the end of the year, he had 350 hours flight time and bought an airplane. The next thing Hanson needed was an excuse to go flying whenever he could. He was referred to a local Angel Flights organization, and from there to PALS.
Hanson has flown many missions with PALS: in their 10th anniversary annual report, he’s number 3 on their list of pilots with the most miles flown. Over the years, he’s also flown volunteer missions for Turtles Fly Too (an organization that helps rescue endangered species such as Kemp turtles that haven’t migrated south in the fall), Angel Flight East, and Veterans Airlift Command. He also set up a bone marrow delivery organization, working with Angel Flight Soars, during the COVID pandemic when commercial airlines and medical transport services were largely shut down. He says over 90 percent of his flying these days is for non-profit organizations, and he flew 45 missions across all his organizations last year.
Hanson’s most memorable missions for PALS have been for children. He received a “Heroes Among Us” award from the Boston Celtics for flying a little girl named Piper. Piper started flying with him when she was only 8 months old, and already on her 7th open-heart surgery. She’s now 6 years old and he flies her on semi-annual visits to Boston Children’s Hospital. He says, “It’s been great seeing her grow up and see her get the best possible care.”
Another child, Brooklyn, started flying with Hanson around age 10. Brooklyn had been in a fire and had severe burns, and Hanson has flown her a number of times. He says PALS flies a lot of child burn patients to Shriner’s Hospital in the Northeast. Children need frequent visits for regrafting because skin grafts don’t grow as the child grows. “She’s 15 now and has turned into a very articulate young lady. I received the 2022 Endeavor award from the Air Care Alliance and Angel Flight West. Brooklyn was the lead speaker and award presenter!” (When asked, he admitted there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after her speech.)
Hanson is as generous with his professional expertise as he is with flying. In addition to flying missions, Hanson was quickly asked to take a seat on the PALS board because the organization was new and trying to grow. He served on that board for 8 years and is currently on the board of the Air Care Alliance (ACA) and the board of Above the Clouds Kids, a non-profit in Norwood, Massachusetts, that offers flights and aviation-themed experiences for medically or financially disadvantaged kids. Hanson notes that public benefit organizations are extremely safety conscious. “Most of what I do now is try to be an advocate, to be a pilot ambassador. Go out there and spread the word, let people know that there are free flights available, and recruit pilots if I can.
Hanson is a passionate advocate for PALS/SkyHope and organizations like it. In his role as Vice President and Board Member at Air Care Alliance, an organization that represents over 60 volunteer pilot organizations, he helps explain the need for volunteer medical transport across the USA, “About 30 million Americans, a number equal to the population of Texas, live in medical deserts, meaning that they’re 200 or more miles away from the kinds of medical care they need. We’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg in getting people to needed care, having provided about 34,000 free flights in 2022. At Air Care Alliance, we know the biggest problem is making people aware that free transportation is available from member organizations such as PALS/SkyHope. We have capacity to grow the number of people served. Air Care Alliance, in collaboration with the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians, has launched a national program to engage Rotary Club members to spread the word about the availability of no-cost services from volunteer pilot organizations.”
According to Hanson, there are many reasons to be a volunteer pilot. On the practical side, it gives him a reason to fly. “Flying alone for general aviation is often extremely irrational. Volunteering helps both me and my family rationalize the irrational.
It is important to make it as convenient as possible for people in need to request flights and for volunteer pilots to see who needs a flight. Volunteer organizations have continuously invested in technology to enable pilots to look at the compelling reasons behind each mission, including age and medical condition. Pilots can fulfill their passion to support specific needs. Hanson focuses on flying children with all types of medical conditions and flying veterans. He says, “Once you fly those in need, you can never complain about anything ever again. They’re enduring daunting life challenges and being troopers through it all.”
He offers what is becoming a common theme among volunteer pilots: “Find your ‘why.’ Why did you invest all of this time and money to develop and sustain the skills to fly? It’s not to go get $100 hamburgers. Helping others in need can easily become the why for any GA pilot as it has for me.”