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Bill Bristow, Founder

A sharing economy model and lashings of old school community spirit have made it possible for Angel Flight to transport thousands of rural Australians by air to the city each year, for medical appointments and treatment.

Founded in 2003 by Queensland advertising executive Bill Bristow, Angel Flight relies on the generosity of a small army of volunteers: 3200 private pilots who donate their aircraft and time and 3000 ‘earth angels’ who ferry patients between airports and hospitals in their own vehicles.

Run out of rented premises in inner-city Brisbane on a budget of just $1.5 million a year, Angel Flight has organised more than 20,000 free flights for country folk, from every state and territory.

Referrals to Angel Flight can be made by a treating doctor or other health professional. Once one is received, the charity’s quartet of flight coordinators source a suitable aircraft, liaise with hospitals and doctors, organise ground transport and develop a bad weather back-up plan.

Donations from corporate sponsors and fund raising drives by community organisations, such as Probus and Lions Clubs, cover overheads and fuel expenses, although many volunteers refuse to accept a contribution towards their costs.

Somebody to lean on

The service makes life immeasurably easier for rural families for whom specialist appointments or hospital stays would otherwise mean hours or days on the road and expensive stays in the city, according to Angel Flight CEO Marjorie Pagani.

An aviation lawyer by profession, Pagani was one of the charity’s foundation pilots and moved into the captain’s seat in 2014.

“Dad or mum might have a job in the mines and can’t get work in town, so relocating isn’t an option if someone in the family is diagnosed with a serious or long-term illness,” she says.

“The long-haul drive was usually what would happen, prior to Angel Flight. We’ve helped people who used to drive 12 hours each way for treatment. Some of our patients were having chemotherapy and then having to get back in the car to return home, feeling terribly nauseous.

“The long drives and delays are so stressful – they’re a contra-indicator to good health – and once country people get to the city there’s a whole new set of stressors. In Sydney and Melbourne, for example, the children’s hospitals aren’t on the train line and parking is poor; trying to find accommodation with parking can also be problematic.

“None of it works if you’re elderly, or you have a sick child or a couple of toddlers with you. Keeping up with treatment can be so difficult in those circumstances – some people did just used to give up.”

By contrast, Angel Flight offers speedy door-to-door service with a smile.

“Often folk will only need to drive 10 minutes to their neighbour’s airstrip and when they touch down in town, our drivers are wonderful,” Pagani says.

“They pick patients up at secondary airports like Archerfield, outside Brisbane, or Bankstown, and take them to their accommodation or appointment and then straight back to the airport when they’re done – people are often home again on the same day.”

High profile helpers

Climb aboard an angel flight and you’re likely to find anyone from Shark Tank judge and IT entrepreneur Steve Baxter to one-time Virgin Australia chief pilot John Raby at the helm. Former Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens piloted the charity’s 20,000th flight in early 2016.

“He’s one of our regulars,” Pagani says. “He might be a captain of industry but on the day, to our patients, he’s just a good bloke who’s flying the plane for them.”

Melbourne aviation consultant Shaun Aisen has clocked up more than 400 flights for the charity since 2004. A cancer survivor himself, he says being able to use his skills to provide direct assistance to others in need is enormously rewarding.

“There are many experienced private pilots out there who are looking for a reason to fly,” Aisen says.

“The chance to give back to the community is truly fulfilling. For me, it’s a wonderful outlet, knowing that I can positively affect someone’s life the moment I fly them and make their situation just that bit easier”.

Looking to help more Australians

A NAB customer since 2015, Pagani says Angel Flight continues to go from strength to strength. The charity has the capacity to ramp up its operations and is keen to get more doctors – and patients – on board in 2017.

“If you need help, or know someone in the country who needs help, send them to us because we’ve got a whole lot more people who can be flying,” she says.

“We have all these assets out there, thousands of aircraft and thousands of trained pilots who love nothing better than to fly, and of course when they fly for a purpose it’s better than what we used to call the ‘hundred-dollar hamburger’ – cruising to the next town for a coffee and burger or because you just want to punch holes in the sky on a Sunday.

“There’s a bunch of us here waiting to help. Angel Flight is a great example of community spirit in action – you hear a lot of negativity but, let me tell you, in Australia community spirit is still alive and well!”

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