Angel Flight looks for pilots with planes

By Kiri Gillespie -
Jack Shelty and Lance Weller of Angel Flight. Photo / APN
Jack Shelty and Lance Weller of Angel Flight. Photo / APN

Pilots who transport sick children to vital medical appointments are proof angels do exist, and the search is on to find some in Tauranga.

Angel Flight is a volunteer service that began in the United States before expanding to Australia and arriving in New Zealand last year.

Pilots use their own planes and money to transport patients with low incomes - and long distances to travel - to hospitals.

Volunteers known as "earth angels" co-ordinate with the pilots to help transport patients, who are usually children.

"But we don't have any pilots in Tauranga," Angel Flight chair and founder Lance Weller said.

"We have 80 people now on our team. This time last year it was just me, so the support we've had is just wonderful."

Mr Weller brought Angel Flight to New Zealand in November last year after flying 10 missions in Australia.

Angel Flight has since transported 18 adults and 10 children, flying 40,838km while Earth Angels drove 886km.

It has become a significant part of the community in places like Northland, where transport to Auckland's larger hospitals can take up to two days using a public shuttle.

Mr Weller said Tauranga would be a key location to help transfer people to Auckland and back.

"If there's a child here with cancer who's pretty crook, rather than sitting in a car for a couple of hours and mum dealing with Auckland traffic on the motorway, we deliver them to Ardmore or Whenuapai (airports) and the Earth Angels will be waiting to take them to hospital," Mr Weller said.

"It's free because the pilots are donating their aircraft and Earth Angels are donating their resources."

Whakatane-based pilot Jack Schulte has flown for Angel Flight for seven years and said he never tires of it.

"There's a real sense of compassion here with the air ambulance service. If you need to go somewhere in an emergency, you can. But that said, it doesn't provide for non-urgent cases, so Lance and I are looking forward to getting Angel Flight set up all over the country."

The American said he was happy to fund the flights out of his own pocket.

"When you see the hardship some people have to face, especially parents of sick kids, it breaks your heart.

"To have some role in assisting is very gratifying."

One of the patients included a 40-day-old Northland baby with a cleft palate, unable to suckle. The mother faced a two-day trip on a public shuttle until Angel Flight became involved.

People requiring an Angel Flight must weigh less than 95kg and have medical clearance from their GP.

Air New Zealand supports Angel Flight by providing back-up flights should the weather cancel aviation of smaller craft. Airports around the country have also waived their landing fees for Angel Flight.

More information can be found at angelflightnz.co.nz.

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