Local man uses own ‘wings’ for Angel Flight

February 23, 2014
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Bob McDemus of Washington guides his plane, a Cessna Cardinal 177, back into the hangar at the Washington County Airport. McDemus uses his plane as part of Angel Flight to ferry patients to hospitals and clinics out of the area. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Bob McDemus of Washington stands by his plane, a Cessna Cardinal 177, at Washington County Airport. McDemus uses his plane as part of Angel Flight East to ferry patients to hospitals and clinics out of the area. Order a Print

Since first learning to pilot an airplane close to 40 years ago, Washington resident Bob McDemus has primarily flown for his own pleasure or to connect with clients of his company.

In November, McDemus gassed up his single-engine Cessna Cardinal for a different kind of flight.

Rather than heading off into the wild blue yonder for the 9-to-5 or to escape from cares on the ground, McDemus for the first time acted as an airborne shepherd for the national volunteer organization Angel Flight East, which provides transportation for the ill and infirm seeking specialized treatment at hospitals and clinics over the horizon and then some.

As McDemus explained it, the trip is typically broken up into several legs, with pilots who sign up with and are approved by Angel Flight handling each portion. Three months ago, McDemus made his maiden Angel Flight, getting his plane out of the hangar that houses it at Washington County Airport and flying to Columbus, Ohio. There, he picked up a Chicago woman and a friend who had been flown there by another Angel Flight pilot. They buckled up in McDemus’ plane, and he ferried them to Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, where another pilot completed the trip to southern New Jersey.

“I feel like I’m at a point in my life where I want to give back,” McDemus explained, while munching on a gyro and french fries at a restaurant in downtown Washington last week. “It’s one of the ways I can give back. I feel blessed … I think this is such a great organization.”

Pilots who volunteer with Angel Flight give their time and fuel for the effort. Angel Flight got its wings in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when three pilots put it together in order to get supplies to areas battered by the storm. Twenty-two years later, Angel Flight carries out 300 to 400 missions a year, covering a little over half the United States.

Given all the costs involved in specialized health care, figuring out how to get patients from Point A to Point B usually falls fairly low on the list of concerns. But it’s not a trivial issue. Most health policies don’t cover plane tickets or other transportation costs. Perhaps most pressingly, many patients are enduring the rigors of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, transplants or other exhausting treatments. They have severely compromised immune systems that make milling around airports, dealing with flight delays, trudging through security and inhaling all that recirculating air on commercial jets not just vexatious but dangerous.

“It really is a financial burden,” said Kristinia Luke, the mission coordinator for Angel Flight East, based near Philadelphia. “What they need is not available where they live, and travel is usually repeated travel. And you can see where that travel would add up over time.”

And, yes, some people who haven never flown in small aircraft can sometimes be a little skittish about getting on board, but Luke said “for most people, this is their last option.” They also have the advantage of being able to directly interact with a pilot, she said, who can offer insights on what is happening, or could happen, during the journey.

Anyone requesting a flight must be in at least stable condition, and pilots must, among other things, be licensed, insured, adhere to Federal Aviation Administration rules and be instrument rated.

A 57-year-old Harrisburg-area native, McDemus first became interested in planes and the idea of flying one when a plane landed at his family’s dairy farm when it ran out of gas. It refueled and took off again. After getting his pilot’s license in 1980, McDemus flew on and off for the next 25 years or so, with a detour into hang-gliding. His interest was revived in 2005 when he realized he could cover more ground for his business, which provides spray-welding equipment and materials, by flying rather than driving. Once the weather improves, McDemus is planning to pilot additional excursions for Angel Flight.

His first mission was “just spectacular,” he said, “just the sense of fulfillment that you’re helping other people.”

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from George State University in Atlanta, Ga., and a master’s in popular culture studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has covered the arts and entertainment for the O-R, and also worked as a municipal beat reporter. He now serves as editorial page editor.

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