If you’ve owned a twin or turbine aircraft for some time, it’s easy to take their transportation convenience and flexibility for granted. But when you have a flight or passenger experience that makes it all new again, you find that the mission itself is more rewarding than the flying experience.
Jeff H. and I were at Clay Lacy Aviation on Boeing Field (BFI) in the Lear 40, for our first passenger pick-up of the day. Her name was Poppy, and it was her big eyes, long eyelashes, light-green glasses, coy smile, and colorful knitted hat with protruding tussled hair that caught my attention. She was obviously all girl and definitely seemed to know it, sitting in the FBO passenger lounge next to her mother Christi and shyly beaming at all who walked by. Looking at the cute little tyke’s trusting and happy face, you would never have guessed that in her short two years of life she had already made dozens of trips to Seattle Children’s hospital, undergone a complete heart transplant, required tube feeding, and had shunts installed from head to chest to prevent hydrocephalus.
Seattle Children’s is a 250-bed hospital with over 650 doctors, devoted entirely to the care of children with conditions that would otherwise often prove fatal. The hospital provides this kind of care for Washington, Idaho, Montana, and parts of Oregon, and has nearby temporary living facilities for out-of-state families. This is very convenient, but they first need to get there, and then home again. Particularly in the winter, there can be real surface-transportation problems in moving children with serious medical conditions across multiple snowy mountain passes to Seattle, and even in the summer the driving time is sometimes just not feasible. If an immediate, life-threatening emergency exists, the patient’s home hospital or emergency room can arrange for air ambulance services, which are normally paid for by insurance. But, for frequently-required non-emergency visits, the parents usually have to figure it out on their own.
This is where Angel Flight West steps into the picture. AFW is an organization of pilots and aircraft owners who volunteer their services to provide free transportation in general aviation and business aircraft for patients like Poppy. Very much to the company’s credit, Alaska Airlines also partners with AFW in providing this service for free, which is extremely helpful. But, that still leaves parents trying to get through the inherently-hostile environment of TSA conga lines and frightening body-search machines at huge, impersonal Part-121 airports. By using airports like Boeing Field and FBOs like Clay Lacy, AFW volunteers bypass all this unpleasantness, and are frequently able to deliver the patient to an airport much closer to home. Jeff and I have been participating members for over a decade, and often it is the most-rewarding flying we do. Our job today is to take Poppy home.
Poppy and her family live in the country, out in the middle of Montana; Bozeman (BZN) is the nearest IFR-capable airport. Our flight planning from BFI to BZN on this particular day is relatively easy. There is a high-pressure system over central British Columbia, slowly moving southward, causing our entire three-state region to be cold and CAVU. Winds aloft are from the west at 100 knots in the low-40 flight levels. The distance from BFI to BZN is 482 nm, which will give the 450-knot Lear a ground speed of about 550 knots at altitude, making it a 55-minute trip. Air traffic is relatively light in this part of the U.S. and, if requested, the assigned routing is usually direct.
But we still need to decide what altitude to file for and that is not as simple. There is a rule of thumb for high-performance turbine aircraft that says, ‘climb 10,000 feet for every 10 minutes of horizontal flight’. For this trip, that rule will put us at the Lear’s maximum operating altitude of FL450. But, the airplane actually slows down a bit at that altitude, and the winds aloft start to taper off to 80 or so. Given these factors, we pick FL 430 as a reasonable compromise. However, there is more to consider.
When transporting sick children in particular, careful thought must be given to their breathing capability, and how they will respond to the lower partial-pressure of oxygen at higher altitudes. In Poppy’s case, her AFW medical information sheet shows no specific altitude restriction, but still, we are pilots and passenger safety is our first responsibility. Even though I‘m a physician in my other life, I find it helpful to do some practical, common-sense ‘pilot’ type thinking in these situations. For example, I know Poppy and her parents live some 50 miles out of Bozeman, Montana, which is at 4,500 feet. I also know it is almost impossible to drive to or from Seattle without climbing to about 7,500 feet MSL. I therefore inquire if Poppy has had any trouble breathing when making that trip by road. The answer is no. I then compare that surface-trip altitude to the anticipated cabin altitude. A Lear 40 will maintain a cabin altitude below 7,500 all the way to FL450, so we do not have a problem today. But, if it were otherwise, we would flight-plan a lower altitude.
Another consideration is the possibility of the child or the parent having some kind of difficulty or need while aloft. These folks do not commonly fly in general aviation aircraft and even a minor thing like mild turbulence can be very disconcerting. For this reason, AFW advises the flight should always have a ‘mission assistant’ on board. If the child is very young and accompanied by the mother (usually the case), I have found it most helpful for the ‘mission assistant’ to be another woman, preferably someone who has a calm and confident demeanor who’s also personally experienced with all the concerns common to motherhood. On this particular trip, that volunteer is my very-capable wife Kari. It amazes me that, in circumstances like this, when two women who are otherwise strangers come together to help a small sick child, there is almost always a certain instant trust, emotional bonding, and easing of mind, which in turn makes the child/passenger visibly more relaxed. This is a very good thing from a pilot’s perspective, because it leaves us free to just fly the airplane.
Flight planning finished, Jeff and I pick up Poppy and Christi’s bags and carry them out to Clay Lacy’s ramp. Pushing Poppy’s stroller, Christi follows somewhat hesitantly, fearing that an armed, hostile TSA official is going to start making a noisy fuss. We assure her that she has nothing to worry about in this location. Kari loads Poppy and her car seat into a rear-facing passenger seat in the Lear and then sits Christi in the forward-facing seat aft of that. This has Poppy and her mother facing each other with continuous eye and physical contact, which is very reassuring for a small child with a long and traumatic medical history. Jeff checks the fuel load, and I try to break down a very-complex baby stroller to fit it into the outside aft baggage compartment. I give up after several clumsy attempts, but Christi comes out and, with one push of some magic hidden button, the whole contraption immediately breaks down to a small package. I sheepishly mumble something about being type-rated in jets but obviously not qualified in strollers.
The ease of starting the Allied Signal TFE 731 FADEC-equipped engines in the Lear 40 is a delight, much simpler than stowing a baby stroller. We copy our clearance, are assigned the Kent 6 departure, and taxi out to runway 13. Arriving at the end, we are cleared for takeoff and blast down 13R, quickly passing V1 and rotating at Vr. The Lear is lightly loaded and climbs like a 30-06 bullet. We promptly have to throttle back to stay within the SID’s initial altitude of 2,000 feet. After a westbound vector, the departure controller assigns us a bumpy 9,000 feet and then a left turn, direct to the WITRO intersection.
They work us up through airline traffic inbound to SEA from the east, and things get smooth above FL240. Upon reaching FL430, we pick up the expected 100-knot tailwind, and level off with a ground speed of nearly 550 knots, less than 45 minutes to go. Because of the decreased air density, the ambient noise level in turbine aircraft drops dramatically in the high flight levels, and from the cockpit I can hear Kari and Christi chatting away in the back of the airplane. Christi’s husband is a special education teacher in the small rural town where they live, and they also have a 3-year old son. Christi is a hairdresser, but hasn’t been able to work for the past year because of the time required to take care of Poppy.
When flying jets, you try to stay as high as possible, as long as possible, and so we set the VNAV program on the Universal FMS to keep us up at FL430 until we reach a top-of-descent or TOD, where we will need at least a 3,000-fpm rate of descent to bring us down to pattern altitude about five miles from the airport. Even so, we start descending while still some 100 miles out. The day is as clear as a bell, and the airport, its paved and plowed runway surrounded by open fields lightly covered with snow, is visible from 30 miles away. We cancel IFR, are switched to the tower, and make a smooth landing on a slightly-icy runway 12.
As we unload baggage onto a frozen ramp, we are surrounded by a crowd of happy, cheering FBO employees and family members, many of whom are in tears. In Montana, even complete strangers seem to know and care about each other. Poppy is home for Thanksgiving, and for them that really counts.
Even for long-time pilots like Jeff and myself, it sometimes happens that the mission is more rewarding than the flight itself.
Kevin Ware is an ATP who also holds CFI, MEII and helicopter ratings, and is typed in several business jets. He has been flying for a living on and off since he was 20, and currently works as a contract pilot for several corporations in the Seattle area. When not working as a pilot, he is employed part-time as an emergency and urgent care physician for a large clinic in the Seattle area.