By Josh Olson
Executive Director, Angel Flight West
The voice was somehow familiar, like something from my childhood, but I couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps when he said, “You sleigh me” in response to a joke, I should have thought about it differently, but at the time nothing seemed that unusual.
In my role as Executive Director of Angel Flight West, I travel to many pilot gatherings. It is always interesting to see the diverse range of knowledge and experience that draws people to general aviation and Angel Flight.
This pilot prospect was instantly likeable. He was remarkably pleasant and effervescent, with a smile that never left his lips. Ruddy complexioned, as if he’d just come in from the cold, he had eyes that defined the notion of “twinkling.” I explained to him that the Angel Flight mission involved providing free transportation, using our own planes, for people with medical issues and other urgent human needs and that many of our missions involved children.
His eyes lit up and his big bushy eyebrows flew up. “Children!” he exclaimed, his voice booming. “That is truly wonderful. All of my flying is for children, and they all seem to love me.
“In fact,” he said jiggling his ample belly, “many of them bring me treats, and a lot of them write to me.”
I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Here was a pilot who’d be a hit with the children we fly to burn camps every summer, as well as those we carry to specialized treatment at various hospitals throughout the year. He had the special spark of compassion and caring that is the most important part of every Angel Flight mission.
I asked him how often he flew.
“One day a year.” I knew he had to be kidding, or that he was perhaps one of those highly regimented people who fly on the same day every week, and that was his “one day.”
When I asked about his airplane, he said he usually thought of it more as an aircraft, and that it was approved for use in more than 190 countries. Impressive. Not even Cirrus has that kind of acceptance, though I couldn’t immediately think of what brand existed that had such widespread distribution. Then again, I certainly haven’t heard or seen it all (at least not until that day).
I explained to him that Angel Flight pilots pay their own expenses for each mission, and consider it a privilege — like a gift — to be able to help others and bring them happiness, comfort and joy. He said he felt exactly the same way, and that for him every flight involved not just one but many gifts. It was clear he understood the real spirit of Angel Flight.
He said he’d been flying for a very long time, though he never said exactly how long. I figured he was probably more than proficient, but wanted to see what his range of experience was, so I asked him if he was comfortable flying at night.
“Night flying? That’s the only kind I do!” he said. We’re always looking for pilots who can help us out when there are late-night calls to transport organs for transplant or for other urgencies, so this candidate was looking very good. He assured me that not only was he fully instrument rated, but that he also had something called Rednose Radar on his plane. I hadn’t heard of it, but as I said, I certainly don’t know everything.
He said capacity wasn’t a problem — compared to the load he usually carries, a flight assistant and two or even four passengers on their way to get medical care they might not otherwise receive would not be a problem at all. Sounded as though he had a pretty big plane, so I asked how many horsepower the engine had. I thought he was being modest and deferring my question when he replied, “I don’t really measure it in horsepower, it’s actually reindeer power. Eight.”
He said it with such a wonderful smile that it all somehow seemed to make sense, as though I already knew this and believed it was true.
As we prepared to part, he handed me his application and said he hoped he’d be able to join Angel Flight and help with our mission. He said he was pretty much available any time except Christmas Eve.
He was gone in a flash, and it was only then that I realized I’d never gotten his name. I looked at the application.
It was signed, “S. Claus.”
At Angel Flight West, we’ve received the same application from hundreds of men and women over a span of more than 30 years. The names change, the aircraft are different, but each of them comes to Angel Flight prepared to offer the gift of hope, care, and concern to those for whom a donated flight can be a lifetime — or a life-saving — experience.
And to all a good night.