Tribute dinner shines light on GA’s humanitarian efforts

WASHINGTON, DC — A tribute dinner was held at a hotel just two blocks from the Capitol where legislators are wrestling over FAA budgets, user fees and other issues of aviation.

Dinners here are as numerous as fleas on a mangy dog. But this one showed what aviation means to the nation by honoring just one activity of flight, and would have been an excellent one for all members of Congress to witness.

The tributes recognized some of the people, organizations, foundations and companies involved in Angel Flight of America.

Angel Flight, as most pilots know, arranges free air transportation for any legitimate, charitable, medically related need. To get help, the patient needs either to be financially distressed or the event time critical.

Last year Angel Flight conducted more than 20,000 trips. That averages one every 23 minutes. To help after Hurricane Katrina, Angel Flight has conducted nearly 3,000 missions. Only the military flew more. About 7,000 pilots are volunteers who make the flights in all types of aircraft from four-place single-engines to corporate jets. As this tribute dinner showed, this humanitarian effort breaks down barriers, unites companies with customers, and crosses political lines.

Airlines are involved. American Airlines alone contributed more than a million passenger miles last year. Alaska, Frontier, Delta and U.S. Airways received thank-you plaques. The New Piper Co. was recognized for its contribution, as was Raytheon, which has donated a hangar, and Saab, which provides automobiles at local airports. Signature Flight Support was thanked for its contributions of waiving all ramp service fees for Angel Flights. Jeff Myers accepted a plaque given to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Dan Hubbard took the thank you recognition back to the office of National Business Aviation Association whose members made mercy flights, including more than 350 related to Katrina alone.

Angel Flight flew 850 missions last year in conjunction with the American Red Cross. There also was cooperation with the United Way, as well as a close working relationship with the Ronald McDonald Charities.

The work of Angel Flight is known by some in Congress — those few members who are pilots or know aviation. Two members of the House of Representatives attended the tribute dinner. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma was scheduled to emcee the event but government business kept him away.

A bill has passed the House and is now bogged down in the Senate that would give legal protection from lawsuits to pilots who donate their time and resources to this worthy cause. It is H.R. 1871, the Volunteer Pilots Protection Act. It has 28 co-sponsors and was approved overwhelmingly in the House. Sen. George Allen of Virginia is pushing for its passage in the upper house. Pilots have been urged to contact their Senators to help the bill along.

Angel Flight touches many American lives — more than a quarter of a million last year, including patients, family members and medical personnel. Odds are none of these people support closing any airports.

Just one more way aviation helps.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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