Flying Angels carry sick to care

By Sophie Bond


As black clouds mass to the south of Whenuapai airport, a roar fills the ears of people gathered on the runway. A hulking grey RNZAF Hercules is landing and 11-year-old Kauri Popata is spellbound.

The Kaitaia boy and his mother, Sylvia Potaka, have just arrived at the airport after an appointment at Middlemore Hospital. Dwarfed by the Hercules is the tiny white Cirrus plane in which they'll be whisked home.

Lance Weller is here to greet them. The pilot started his day at home in Whangarei, flew to Kaitaia where he picked up Sylvia and Kauri and brought them to Auckland. Now all three are ready for the return flight, leaving just in time to avoid bad weather.

Kauri was born with a cleft palate, though all that remains of it now is a faint scar on his top lip. Over the years this has meant many five-hour car trips to Auckland for specialist appointments and surgery, followed by long drives home. Today's flight brings huge relief for Sylvia, who describes it as a fun, relaxing alternative.

At times she has driven 10 hours for an appointment that lasted only 10 minutes.

Kauri's camera-shy and doesn't utter a peep, but his mother tells us this was his first flight.

"We were at the airport at 9am. Mr Weller was there waiting. Through the clouds it was a bit scary but the scenery was lovely and it only took us an hour," she says. "It was neat fun and now I can be back home in time to pick up my other kids from school."

Kauri has two hospital appointments in October for impressions to be taken of his mouth, so the family may well use the service again soon.

Waving goodbye from the tarmac are Bruce and Elizabeth Young of Manukau. They've signed with Angel Flights as ground-based assistants. Called Earth Angels, their role is to meet flights and arrange transport between the airport and the medical appointment.

Also present is mission co-ordinator Roger Leadbeater, who makes sure everyone is in the right place at the right time.

After 43 years living in Australia, where he flew missions for Australia's Angel Flights, Mr Weller flew his plane home to New Zealand in January and set up the Angel Flight Charitable Trust.

"I wanted to keep doing the flights and helping people, but it didn't exist here," he says. "It's grown fast and now we have more than 50 in the group."

This includes 25 pilots, 24 Earth Angels and four mission commanders around the country. This flight to Kaitaia takes the number of missions so far to eight.

Mr Weller is grateful for support from New Zealand aviation organisations, including a $2000 MetService subscription for weather reports and $5000 worth of Air New Zealand fares so flights can go ahead if the weather is too bad for small aircraft.

Angel Flights has had free publicity in two aviation magazines and airport owners have waived landing fees at Kaitaia, Kerikeri, Whangarei, North Shore, Ardmore and Hamilton airports.

Rotary donated $10,000 towards uniforms for the pilots and administration costs.

Now, Mr Weller, the trust chairman, says the grapevine needs to kick in. "We're set up and now we want a few more customers.

"We need word to get out and I think that once it does, demand will follow."


WHO QUALIFIES?

Patients needing non-urgent medical treatment at destinations where road transport would be challenging

or unaffordable.


``Mission requests'' for health professionals such as medical practitioners, nurses or social workers through the trust

website.


To make a donation, find out about volunteering or nominate a patient, see www.angelflight.co.nz


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- The Aucklander

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