NORMAN — “My passion is flying and my mission is Angel Flight,” said Randy Richison, Norman pilot and Angel Flight South Central Wing Leader.
Angel Flight is a nonprofit organization with volunteer pilots who provide free air transportation to children and adults who need medical treatment not available to them locally. The pilots pay all of the costs, from fuel to airport fees, out of their own pockets.
Richison has been a pilot with the Angel Flight program since September 2003 and during that time has transported 26 people.
“It’s a win-win. Pilots like to fly and patients need a ride,” Richison said. “To me, it’s meaningful. My mission, my purpose, is helping someone directly.”
The pilot likened the Angel Flight program to Meals on Wheels or helping the homeless. These all involve helping people directly he said.
“You get to know these people,” he said. “And it impacts so many people.”
There are about 55 volunteer pilots in Oklahoma and around 1,100 pilots in the Angel Flight South Central organization. In addition to Oklahoma, the South Central group serves Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arkansas and Louisiana. During the past 12 months, AFSC has made about 2,000 charitable flights.
Richison said many people only learn about the program through word of mouth whenever they have a relative or loved one needing serious medical treatment. As South Central Wing Leader though, he tries to get the word out about the organization as much as possible.
As a leader, his job is to recruit more pilots and let people in the community and medical fields know about their services.
“There’s a lack of knowledge,” Richison said. “(Angel Flight) is like a hidden jewel.”
AFSC is based out of Dallas but to get Oklahoma patients there, Richison said they often fly to smaller towns and smaller airports to pick them up. Pilots have flown to Bartlesville, Ponca City, Chickasha, Ada, Shawnee and more.
“You name it, we’ve been there,” he said.
Whenever the volunteer pilots are flying patients, air traffic controllers often give the charitable flights special treatment. Richison said they often give them priority when the are flying in or out of the airport.
Patients will also receive special handling. Not only are they being flown by volunteer pilots for free, but they also have “ground angels” that will take care of them. The ground angels pick up the patient from the airport and take them to either their hotel or the medical center where they’re receiving treatment. They also take them back to the airport for their ride home, he said.
Arranging a flight can take some time for patients because of the paperwork involved. Patients must have a qualified doctor, nurse or social worker sign off on the paperwork. After that, it usually takes seven working days to process it and schedule a flight for a patient.
Richison said it is important to always have a back up plan as well in case the flight gets canceled. Flights can get canceled because of weather, because a pilot is sick, because of mechanical issues or because a patient gets too sick to fly, he said.
Often times if a flight does get canceled though, he said the pilot will try to find an alternate method to get the patient to the medical center.
“Some pilots will volunteer to buy patients commercial airline tickets,” Richison said.