How angels are born
A brief history of Angel Flight West
(Adapted from “In the Beginning…” by Brian Weiss, AFW pilot and former Board member)
In the beginning, there wasn’t much. A few pilots, some folding chairs, a hangar at what was then Gunnell Aviation at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, and a belief in the hearts of those pilots that they could use their airplanes to help others.
The year was 1983. The pilots had come together to start the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Medical Support Flight Team (AMSFT). It was launched with a lot more good intentions than flights. For the first several years of its existence, the group that would later be called Angel Flight West had an uphill battle to convince people that it really was giving away free air transportation.
Waiting for the call
In December of that first year, the mission total stood at zero. By the end of 1984, the Chapter’s first full year, the total had grown to 15 missions, and the pilots celebrated with an anniversary party at the home of one of its members. The Chapter was still so small that the entire membership, plus spouses and significant others and friends, could gather comfortably in one home for a potluck dinner. It would be several years before the group graduated to banquets at restaurants to celebrate anniversaries.
The monthly meetings often were highlighted by the pilots’ blow-by-blow descriptions of the missions they’d flown – if there had been any missions, that is. It was not unusual for a month or two to go by with nary a call, even though the pilots were ready, willing and able.
The L.A. Chapter of AMSFT began to grow quickly – first in members, and then in number of missions flown. In 1986, the group decided to split from the national organization and function on its own. From the beginning, the Chapter’s nickname had been Angel Flight, and the pilots decided to officially change the name of their newly independent group to Angel Flight West.
“Going solo” is never easy. Fortunately, Angel Flight West had the organization, leadership, and finances to succeed. Thanks to the efforts of several key members, AFW was given a solid foundation upon which it still rests today.
As a nonprofit entity, Angel Flight West had a board of directors, but the day-to-day operations were handled by a small executive committee consisting of about a half dozen volunteers. It wasn’t until 1988 that AFW hired its first full-time employee, Kathy Ezemoli. Kathy stayed with Angel Flight West until her retirement in 2007.
Growing larger and more visible
As Angel Flight West grew larger and increased its staff, it became more visible. An outreach program directed at hospitals, publicity in many local and regional newspapers, plus other efforts combined to make AFW “top of mind” to those in a position to use its services.
As you might expect, AFW’s increased visibility helped to boost the number of missions flown, which grew from 15 in 1984, to 170 in 1987. It took 14 years before the group topped the 1,000-mission mark. Yet it took only three more years for the mission total to soar above 2,000. Today, 30+ years after its founding, the volunteer pilots of Angel Flight West are proud to have flown more than 4,000 missions a year – an average of about 12 flights, each and every day.
The stories behind the numbers
Of course, numbers alone don’t tell the real story of Angel Flight West. The real story is the thousands of people in crisis who were given hope where there had been none before. It’s the story of people who are alive today only because an Angel Flight West pilot flew them on a mission for help. It’s the story of kids with cancer, adults with AIDS, and people of all ages facing tragedies that seemed overwhelming until they met a pilot who cared enough to help.
For more than 30 years, Angel Flight West has provided not just transportation, but care, compassion… and hope. It is a remarkable person-to-person endeavor that has every reason to celebrate its many years of success.