In a quiet moment, pilot Jon Lange looks back from the cockpit of his Socata/TBM 700. Jon is one of 1,800 volunteer pilots who fly for Angel Flight West, and today he’s setting a milestone: this flight is the charitable aviation organization’s 90,000th mission.
His passenger, Jenny, is gazing out the window at the clouds in wonder alongside her sister-in-law Alejandra. It’s Jenny’s first time in an airplane at the age of the 31 – but more exciting yet, she’s about to be reunited with her husband and five young children after a seven-month stay in the hospital as she battled COVID-19.
In January, Jenny was diagnosed with COVID-19. Because she has asthma and other respiratory conditions, she required a special machine, similar to the one used in open-heart surgery, to help oxygenate her blood. This treatment isn’t commonly available, so she had to travel quite far from home: she was airlifted from her hometown of Reno, Nevada to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. During her long stay in the hospital, she wasn’t able to see her family due to the pandemic.
As she neared the end of her long stay at the University of Washington Medical Center, overcoming difficult health challenges each day, she faced another obstacle: how to get home. “We’re a low-income family. We don’t have the type of money to use on travel,” recounts Jenny. One day, her doctor delivered good news: Angel Flight West was going to get her home, for free. “If we didn’t know about AFW,” Jenny says, “I would be stuck trying to figure out a way to come home.
Jon has been recreationally flying for years, his interest in aviation sparked early on in his childhood. By day, he’s a software engineer, but as he looked for more reasons to get in the sky, he came across Angel Flight. “Once I started flying missions, I could never stop,” he says. “Each passenger has a unique story to tell. I found myself thinking, ‘Why would I not want to do this as much as I can?!’”
On July 13, after meeting at Boeing Field, the trio loaded up Jenny’s bags and oxygen tank, reviewed safety protocols, and settled in for the two-hour journey home. On their approach to Reno/Tahoe International Airport, Jon could hear Alejandra pointing out landmarks. As they touched down, Jon said, “Welcome home.” Jenny paused for a moment and answered, “I think I’m going to cry.”
A week or so after the flight, she told AFW, “It was so sweet to be with my kids and my husband again, to actually see them, to be able to touch them and hug them.” She arrived in time to celebrate one of her children’s seventh birthday.
Just as Jenny delights in being home again, Jon finds the most joy from the quiet, personal moments in the aircraft together with his passengers. From time to time, he flies repeat passengers, but often, they only cross paths for a single short voyage. He treasures the opportunity to get to know his passengers, share stories, and play a part in their care process. “It just makes me feel so good to know I could make a big difference for someone.”
“We’re excited about reaching this milestone,” adds AFW Executive Director Josh Olson, “but most of all we’re thankful we were able to help Jenny and the thousands of other patients who were aboard all those flights.”
Each one of the 90,000 missions represents a moment in the air – a shared moment between a pilot and a passenger. As Jon describes, it’s an experience that gets someone one step closer to the care and healing they need.