Blog, News
Sickle Cell Patient Flies Free
October 12, 2010
  • Share
  • Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic volunteer pilots ‘fly with a purpose’
    By Prue Salasky

    “It was funny, one of the funniest flights ever,” says 15-year-old China Murphy, a Denbigh High School sophomore with a room-filling personality. It was also her first ever flight this summer, when she boarded the single-engine four-seater 1987 Mooney 252 in Newport News to go to Randleman, N.C. For Leesburg pilot Robb Alpaugh, 66, it was one of 21 Angel Flights he’s conducted year to date, and one of 40 in the three years since he’s been flying for the medical charity.

    Murphy, whose given name is KeiVonya, was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at birth. Both her parents carry the trait which put her at a 50 percent chance of inheriting the full-blown disease in which red blood cells become rigid and get stuck in small blood vessels. This slows blood flow and oxygen to parts of the body. Murphy has a host of medical problems associated with the disease, for which there is currently no cure.

    Her flight took her to Victory Junction Camp, a Richard and Lynda Petty-sponsored summer camp for children with chronic diseases and serious illnesses. Her fellow campers were children and teens with sickle cell and other blood disorders as well as burn survivors. The two previous years that Murphy attended the camp, she travelled by bus. This summer, the camp arranged for an Angel Flight for her and Keshaun Smith. Murphy boarded at Patrick Henry Airport and Alpaugh made a landing in Suffolk to pick up Smith before continuing on to the camp.

    Angel Flight

    Alpaugh first learned about Angel Flight when he “was flying around and heard ‘Angel Flight Zulu Foxtrot’ getting preferred handling by the control tower.” On investigation, he discovered the group, part of the Air Charity Network, whose mission is “to ensure that no patient in need is denied access to distant specialized medical evaluation, diagnosis, treatment or rehabilitation for lack of means of long-distance medical air transportation.” The Mid-Atlantic region has 700 volunteer pilots on standby, coordinated by two full-time schedulers in Virginia Beach.

    The pilots donate their time, skills, plane and fuel to the cause. The requirements are stringent: They must have a minimum of 500 hours as an FAA-certified pilot, an instrument rating, access to a plane and pay all expenses. The patients, for their part, must be ambulatory and able to sit upright in the seat of a small plane. They are asked to give five days notice for Angel Flight to arrange their transportation. The group sends out an e-mail schedule to the pilots with the requested destination (within 1,000 miles, usually a couple of hours’ flight time), number of passengers, weight and date.

    Murphy fit the bill for a recipient. Bouncing with barely contained energy, she gives no outward sign as to her medical condition. It’s her mother, Gwenita, who reveals China‘s daily struggles, indicating that she has a breathing problem and high blood pressure as well as enduring many crises. On a regular day China must take seven pills; on a bad day, when the pain kicks in, she takes 10, sometimes more.

    Her life includes visits to the doctor every two weeks; she has constant blood work and transfusions when necessary. A headache or chest pain can precipitate a crisis, a possibility of heart attack or stroke, and she’ll go to the doctor for intravenous fluids. She drinks water constantly to stay hydrated. “I’m like a water tower,” she says.

    Victory Junction camp

    Her main concern about the flight was the weight restriction. She was told to pack no more than 20 or 30 pounds. “Are you serious?” was her immediate reaction. Still, it didn’t stop her from taking KeiVonta, a “Build-a-Bear” who is her constant companion and who has an extensive wardrobe of his own. For the flight the 3-year-old bear wore an aviator outfit. In her camp video, he’s wearing a polo shirt, khakis and a cap while China navigates a putt-putt course. Observing her round, she jokes, “I never said I was Tiger Woods.” To demonstrate her camp talent-show piece, she puts on some music, pulls up the hood on KeiVonta’s U.Va. sweatshirt, and raps about Victory Junction camp and the good times there. “This one has a message,” she says.

    The NASCAR-themed camp has amenities galore including a bowling alley, movie theater, fishing, paddleboats, canoeing, horseback-riding and an animal petting area. Campers also learn how to do pit-crew duties, such as changing a tire.

    Volunteer pilots

    At first, Murphy thought the plane looked like a toy, but only became nervous when Alpaugh went over the safety rules. “He talked about how to get out. Do we really have to know this?” she mused.

    The answer is yes, according to Christian Kidder, a Chesapeake-based Angel Flight pilot, who co-owns a Piper Cherokee Warrior called “Winslow.” The safety spiel is part of FAA regulations.

    His plane is considerably slower than Alpaugh’s Mooney Ñ it has a top speed of 120 mph compared to 200 mph Ñ but it still makes transportation quicker and less stressful for people requiring Angel Flight services. “For someone with cancer needing specialized medical care a long road trip can be too much to endure. Their finances are already stretched and this is free. This makes it a little less painful,” says Kidder, who signed up for the service 10 years ago.

    “I love to fly and serve other people in the process,” says Kidder, 39, a Navy commander at Joint Forces Command in Norfolk. He calls it “flying with a purpose,” citing the “$100 hamburger” syndrome as contrast.

    A typical outing for a small-plane pilot, he explains, is when you fly to another small airport, eat lunch and come home. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he says. He estimates it costs him about $100 an hour to fly his plane, taking into account maintenance as well as operation. “I get to do something worthwhile,” he says Ñ his most recent Angel Flight errand was delivering a relative carrying umbilical cord blood to a cancer patient in North Carolina Ñ and he gets a tax deduction which makes flying less expensive.

    First flight

    For Murphy, the Angel Flight cut her travel time considerably as well as introducing her to flight. “It’s like a whole different world up there with the clouds underneath us,” she says. “I was so hyper. It seemed long, but I think it was a little under two hours.”

    Coming back from camp on the plane she felt like a pro. “It’s like going to lunch. You have to sit in the same seat,” she says, which in her case was directly behind the pilot. “I was just chilling, listening to music.”,0,1554570.story

    DAILY PRESS2010-10-02false