Angels spreading their wings to help transport cancer patients

Sidney-based Angel Flight BC has been helping children and adults with cancer since 2002.

Coen Wallace with dad

Since 2002, Angel Flight BC has been helping children and adults with cancer get to and from hospitals and treatment centres.

Patients are flown all across the Island, Sunshine Coast and lower mainland via private aircraft. For Jeff Morris, president and CEO, the aviation world has always been a passion.

“Aviation’s been very kind to me. I love airplanes, I was interested in airplanes since I was probably about eight or nine.”

He joined the Royal Air Force in 1958 at age 15 and graduated in ’61. When he left the airforce he joined a U.K. charter company called Court Line, flying the Lockheed L1011 Tristar. After the airline went bankrupt, Morris joined Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong.

Morris returned to Vancouver Island in 1996. He would meet Chuck Lovallo and the pair began the local Angel Flight. Operating under strict regulations — Transport Canada and the Canadian Transportation Agency must sign off — it took the two men 18 months for Angel Flight to take off.

They began in 2002 with eight volunteer pilots, carrying children with cancer to various appointments.

“In those days, and it’s still to a large extent now, all kids with cancer have to go to Children’s Hospital in Vancouver,” said Morris, adding pilots were restricted to day time flying only.

They later applied for an exemption to an air operator certificate (AOC) in order to fly at night. As the service grew, they expanded their service to include adult  cancer patients as well.

One of their first clients was a woman from Alert Bay and Angel Flight flew her back and forth from Victoria.

“Her options were, we could fly into, basically, Alert Bay where it was a very simple airfield or … Port Hardy. We could fly her down here in two hours.”

If they couldn’t fly, Morris said, she’d have to take the evening ferry from Alert Bay to Port McNeil, then get into Port Hardy and get on what they call the cancer bus, which left Port Hardy at 4:30 a.m. She would then travel on the bus, which came down to Campbell River, Comox, Courtenay then Nanaimo, arriving in Victoria at 3 p.m., quite the long journey.

“Then she’d have a week’s worth of treatment and then guess what? She’s got to go back again,” said Morris.

Angel Flight BC today has 29 pilots who either own their own plane or rent. The pilots are based anywhere from the Victoria airport to Abbotsford or Port McNeil.

“This year has been a strange year, but this year probably 65, 70 per cent of our flights have been out of Vancouver … not too many here,” he said.

Morris works with oncologists, who he said have been very good to Angel Flight.

“If they know it’s Angel Flight they’ll give the client the last appointment on a Monday so we’ve got time to bring them in and the first one on a Friday so we’ve got time to take them home,” said Morris.

This year, he said, was a slow one, with just 66 fights on net compared to last year’s 164.

With a budget of $60,000 to $65,000 a year, Angel Flight does its transportation for free, but relies on donations.

They’ve had one or two group sponsors along with generous supporters, and even had a fundraiser last week at Hermann’s Jazz Club, selling out, with all money going directly to assist Angel Flight BC.

For more information, visit angelflight.ca.