It was Halloween day, and 4-year-old Tito had just undergone audiology treatment at UCLA Medical Center. Tired after a long day of treatment and travel, Tito and his mother arrived at the airport where their Angel Flight West pilot met them to fly them home to Santa Barbara County.
“Earlier that day, my good friend and mission assistant pilot Jordan and I decided to stop at Target and get Tito a Halloween basket and fill it with candy and toys,” recalls AFW pilot Mark Koenig, of Thousand Oaks. “When we gave it to him, his face lit up with a giant smile! That’s when I realized how special this organization is… and I knew that I was going to continue to do this as long as possible,” says Koenig, who has been flying volunteer missions for AFW since 2014.
The nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization arranges free, non-emergency air travel for children and adults with serious medical conditions and other compelling needs. Their network of 1,200+ pilots in 13 western states donate their aircraft, piloting skills and all flying costs to help families in need, enabling them to receive vital treatment that might otherwise be inaccessible because of financial, medical or geographic limitations.
Since the organization started in 1983, volunteer pilots have flown over 70,000 missions comprising hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of miles—the equivalent of $49 million in flight costs donated by AFW’s volunteer pilots and commercial airline partners.
“AFW is a truly wonderful nonprofit organization,” says Koenig. “Each flight is a chance for you to fly someone who really needs your help to get them the medical care they need—sometimes lifesaving medical care… You’re a pilot, you’re going to fly anyway… why not help someone in need while you’re at it?” he adds.
AFW flights begin with a physician or case manager who verifies the passenger’s circumstances, ensuring services are directed to those most in need—a third of AFW passengers are children, half are ethnic or cultural minorities, and 80% are designated at low- or poverty-income levels.
AFW’s 1,200+ volunteer pilots and 200 “Earth Angel” ground volunteers who help with outreach, pilot recruitment, arranging flights and ground transportation ensure that people in need receive necessary health care, despite the distance. All flight costs are donated by AFW pilots, located in 13 Western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawai’i, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Commercial airlines, including Alaska Airlines, Mokulele and Hawaiian Airlines, also donate tickets to AFW each year to fly people from Alaska to the Lower 48, during times when weather prevents small aircraft from flying, and for island-to-island travel.
Need for Pilots
AFW pilots fly more than 10 missions every day of the year. Each flight represents a chance for someone to get the medical care they need. Pilots choose when to fly, how often and whom they fly, allowing for flexibility and rewards.
“Flying has always been my biggest passion in life ever since I was a young boy,” says Koenig, whose father was a pilot. “Since I was about 5, he used to take me up, and I remember how enthralled I was that we’re actually flying through the sky, defying gravity and seeing the beautiful earth from that third dimension! And I’ve always been someone that feels a very satisfying personal reward in helping others in need, so to be able to combine that with my biggest passion is such a great feeling… that’s what I like most about volunteering with AFW.”
To learn more about Angel Flight West, including how to become a volunteer pilot, Earth Angel or supporter, visit AngelFlightWest.org, or call AFW Associate Executive Director Cheri Cimmarrusti at 310.390.2958.