MONROE, La. (AP) " A league of volunteer pilots is serving Louisiana in a remarkable way.
The organization Pilots for Patients, established in 2008 and based in Monroe, is flying patients in need of treatment and diagnosis to specialized facilities " at no cost.
"Our pilots come from all walks of life " they're doctors, lawyers, farmers " all coming together for the common good of all of our patients going to specialized treatment facilities," states Philip Thomas, president of Pilots for Patients, in an introductory video on the organization's website.
"We pick up patients when they are physically, financially, spiritually and emotionally distraught and when they are in the lowest hour, we are here to help lift them. Hopefully, that is what this is all about."
The nonprofit organization is working on its 10th year of successful missions in which they have completed more than 4,000 flights (3,831 air missions, 40 paid commercial tickets or humanitarian flights and 135 ground missions).
Pilots for Patients is the creation of Philip Thomas, a pilot who was formerly involved in a group called Angel Flight South Central out of the Dallas area. Thomas saw that there was a need for an organization like Angel Flight in Louisiana, and Pilots for Patients was born.
There are currently 140 volunteer pilots on the rolls for the organization, more than 80 of whom flew a mission in 2017. Each mission is completely covered by the pilot and they receive no compensation " yes, even down to the fuel.
The flights are organized through a database on the Pilots for Patients website, where pilots can pick certain missions that fit their schedule, as well as a form for patients in need of assistance to fill out.
The best way to understand Pilots for Patients is to speak with a few of the volunteer pilots themselves:
Volunteer pilot Chris Trahan
Trahan, 66, is a retired lawyer who took up flying 30 years ago as a leisurely pastime.
He found out about the organization in the mail.
"I received a letter to get involved in the organization," says Trahan. "I got to the point that I wasn't flying anymore and I went ahead and signed up to volunteer for them.
"I headed to Houston to pick up this lady, whom we will call 'K.' When we were leaving the airport out of Houston, you have to stay low for a while, I was a bit nervous because I had never done something like this before in my life.
"I looked back at the lady and as nonchalant as I could be, I said, 'K, before you were diagnosed with cancer have you ever flown before?' She looked at me, with a laugh and said 'I'm 70 with cancer, the last thing I'm scared of is flying!'
"She was just delightful. I knew then this was something great to be a part of, every patient I've ever met is so appreciative " it gives me a reason to fly again."
He said his favorite aspect about Pilots for Patients is that he gets to meet new people " who are all appreciative of the service they offer.
Volunteer pilot Mark Blair
Blair began flying when he was 18 years old.
"Pilots have a hard time telling you why they fly, they just do," Blair, 55, says. "It's a difficult thing to explain. It's an exhilarating experience to defy gravity. I started at 18 and have continued to be interested and excited since."
Blair is currently a mechanical engineer in the petrochemical industry.
He found out about Pilots for Patients from his wife who found a brochure for the organization in a local airport.
"To me, it's a form of Christian ministry," Blair says. "To help your neighbor " similar to the good Samaritan " helping those who are medically needy gives me a good reason to fly and help someone at the same time.
"The opportunity to pursue your hobby and help someone " that's not always available. But in this case, it's a nice fit."
Pilots for Patients is currently looking to recruit volunteer pilots to compensate for the growing number of missions. All that's needed to qualify to become a volunteer pilot is 250 hours of flying experience and to own an aircraft " or have the accessibility to rent one.
"We have people with a full range of pilot experience," Blair says. "There are military pilots, non-professionals, farmers, you name it, we have it. A bulk of the people who fly are people like Chris and me who had other careers and found an interest and calling to do this."
The organization hopes to expand its outreach to more areas of Louisiana that may not be familiar with who they are.
"Most people have never heard of it, especially in south Louisiana. It's not nearly as known as it is in the north," Trahan says.