Several years ago I started volunteering for the Angel Flight organization, which transports low income patients for distant specialized medical treatments. Such flights are a fine opportunity to share my good fortune in owning a relatively fast and comfortable cross-country airplane, a Cessna P210 with a turboprop conversion, known as a “Silver Eagle.”
In March of 2011 I learned of an Angel Flight mission from Palm Coast, Florida, to Birmingham, Alabama. As usual, the mission coordinator had broken the 400 nm trip into two shorter legs with a planned handover midway at Moultrie, Georgia. The outbound legs would occur on Thursday; the medical visit at the University of Alabama on Friday and the two return legs on Saturday.
I signed up for both of the Thursday legs as the Silver Eagle could make the combined flight nonstop in little over two hours. I expected that the Saturday return flights would easily attract other pilots who work during the week. As the trip drew nearer, no one had signed up. The Angel Flight coordinator asked me if I would stay overnight and return the patient late Friday afternoon after the medical appointment.
Huh? Then why take them Thursday? I could fly Palm Coast-Birmingham Friday morning and return that evening, saving the patient two nights lodging and time away. That became the plan, but as my ancestral homeland’s poet wrote, “The best laid-schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.” Here is the story with two memorable aspects: the patient and the weather.
Sarah is a sweet and attractive 16-year-old girl. She has Multiple Sclerosis, a terrible degenerative disease of the nervous system. While most victims have first symptoms in their 30s and 40s, hers started at age 12.
Manifestations include episodes of tingling, loss of feeling, partial paralysis and loss of vision. Remissions are common and sometimes lengthy, but MS always comes back. Her variety of MS is progressive. Sadly, she will likely be in a wheelchair in ten years and no longer with us in 20.
The symptoms may be mitigated with medications, but diagnosing and prescribing are complex. Her treatments at local medical facilities had diminishing effects. A professor at the University of Alabama is a leading expert on juvenile MS. Sarah’s mother made many phone calls and pleaded vigorously to get Sarah into the prof’s busy schedule.
Both ladies rode with me. Mom was nervous as she disliked flying even in airliners. But she was going to do whatever was required to help her daughter. She sat in the aft seat and stuck it out. Although I could hear sudden gasps from her in my headset whenever we hit occasional light turbulence, she never complained.
Conversely, Sarah jumped into the right seat and enjoyed the whole flight to KBHM. This was her first flight in a light aircraft, but she quickly settled into it including some intelligent questions about how the airplane and avionics operated.
On Friday morning, weather conditions at both ends were good, but a cold front in Mississippi was forecast to move into Alabama that afternoon. Following a hunch, I told the pax to bring along a little overnight bag just in case.
As expected, winds aloft at FL180 were 50+ knots from the southwest, but the headwind component was minor and the ride mostly smooth. I kept a close eye on NEXRAD as cells started popping up in Alabama, about 100 nm in advance of the front.
Several were aimed at the airport and looked to hit about the same time as we would. I had taken on extra fuel at Palm Coast and could hold if necessary, but fortune smiled and the cells passed over the airport ten minutes before we arrived. After a visual approach, a stiff crosswind landing and taxiing through standing water, we arrived at Atlantic Aviation. The ladies jumped into a cab for the 1 p.m. appointment and I settled into the pilot’s lounge.
Normally I avoid the larger FBOs such as Atlantic, Landmark and Signature as they are focused on corporate jets and charge high fuel prices. But Atlantic is the only FBO at KBHM and that airport was by far the most convenient for this mission. At least I got unlimited hot popcorn, fresh fruit, and coffee along with flat screen TVs and a snooze room for the $7/gal that I expected to pay for Jet A.
Yet the staff at Atlantic could not have been nicer. An hour after I landed, a lineman asked me if he could put my airplane into a hangar as he saw some cells approaching from the west on radar. I said yes and he did.
About two o’clock the weather outlook took a turn for the worse. The local TV stations suspended their normal programming, called in all their meteorologists and went to a full-time tornado watch. Yes, some of those frontal cells were becoming “supercells” and spawning tornados.
After hours of TV watching, I learned a lot about “tornadic activity” and the BTI index. Close-up NEXRAD images enabled almost block-by-block tracking of the most dangerous areas. Storm chasers appeared with occasional videos from handheld cameras of tornados emerging from the bottom of cells.
All of this was 30 to 60 nm southwest of me. A departure corridor to the southeast remained clear of cells for much of the afternoon. I thought that we might make it home until 4 p.m. when the Birmingham area was placed under a tornado watch.
Enough, I thought; we are spending the night. I explained the situation to the Atlantic desk person who in less than ten minutes arranged two rooms at the airport Holiday Inn with the FBO’s discounted rate. They shuttled me to the hotel and the ladies’ return taxi dropped them there.
I spent the evening nervously watching the TV reports and looking out the window at the angry sky. By bedtime the supercells had lost thermal energy and the danger passed.
Birmingham only received heavy rain, but 18 people died during the tornados. Property damage was sporadic, but hundreds of buildings suffered. In 40 years of flying, I have never been so near to such severe weather.
Saturday morning was clear, cold and windy after frontal passage. Atlantic had the airplane in front and properly fueled when we reached the airport.
When I settled with Atlantic, I was pleasantly surprised that I was not charged for the hangar shelter or an overnight fee. After showing my Angel Flight paperwork, I received a huge fuel discount that brought the price to the levels I pay at the cheaper airports near home! Kudos to Atlantic!
The flight home at FL190 was uneventful although Sarah was subdued and at times woozy, perhaps from the MS or maybe all the activity.
Her visit was successful as she received a more precise diagnosis of her MS, six prescriptions for medications and a referral to a specialist in Jacksonville. Hopefully he will be able to manage her disease and let her avoid future trips to Birmingham.
Through all of this, Sarah showed a determination to make the best of her situation and maintained a positive attitude. Her mother obviously loves her a lot and is trying to do the best for her. When we parted at Palm Coast, with lots of hugs and sweet words, Sarah gave me a Thank You card with a note inside. When I opened it at home, this is what I read:
God does special things for people like you and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your time and compassion gave me the chance to see one of the best doctors for my illness and to get feeling better. No one will ever feel the gratitude I have right now in one step forward to recovery because of you.
And that, my friends, makes it all worthwhile.