By Brendan Sneegas, Director of Operations & Development, Angel Flight Central
Following 25 years of service and over 28,000 free flights for people in need of long-distance travel to medical care and treatment, the COVID-19 outbreak shook the mission of Angel Flight Central (AFC), a non-profit charitable aviation organization serving those in the Midwest, including North Dakota. The ability to safely fly people to and from medical care became too dangerous for pilots, as well as their passengers. Angel Flight Central was quickly forced to suspend passenger flights and re-evaluate its mission.
“We realized that the safest way forward in the short-term was to concentrate on cargo flights,” said Don Sumple, AFC’s CEO and Executive Director. Utilizing a partnership with a rural hospital organization, AFC was able to arrange flights carrying Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to underserved rural hospitals across several states. However, as in every natural or national crisis, volunteer pilots have a great desire to assist. The PPE flights were not enough to satisfy the willingness of the AFC pilots.
It was around this time when Vitalant, one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit community blood service providers, started facing struggles getting blood products to their intended destination. With three donation locations in North Dakota, Vitalant’s ability to transport donated blood and blood products to processing centers was being affected with all the changes in commercial aviation routes. Vitalant’s Community Outreach Ambassador Jennifer Bredahl, reached out to North Dakota Senator Tom Campbell to ask for help. He connected Vitalant with Mike Kempel of Dakota Refrigeration, who offered to use his private plane to help. However, with the continuous transportation needs, the North Dakota Civil Air Patrol recommended connecting with Angel Flight Central.
Vitalant is internationally recognized for their expertise in blood collection testing, logistics, distribution, special services and research. In other words, Vitalant had a life-saving product supply of plasma needing delivery multiple days of the week to a processing center 570 nautical miles away in St. Louis, while AFC had compassionate volunteer pilots calling to ask to help. A perfect match.
Rachel Nelson, Vitalant’s Senior Hospital Services Manager, summarized the experience. “During these uncertain times of COVID-19, our products for our patients were greatly impacted. We had logistical struggles on a daily basis, until we partnered with Angel Flight Central. Their organized diligence to support the needs of the community was impeccable. Because of their support, we were able to get our blood and blood products where they needed to go, so we could continue our life-saving mission. We truly cannot thank them enough!”
The partnership is now in its fourteenth week. Twenty-seven pilots have flown 37 flight legs a total of 10,500 nautical miles. Over 5,000 miles of trips are planned for the weeks ahead, and if more pilots could join in, additional locations could be added.
With new screening and safety protocols, AFC resumed flying passengers to medical care in June, but the passion and inspiration that has evolved from two non-profits combining efforts to change and save lives has only gained momentum, thanks to the great people at Fargo Jet Center.
If you are a pilot and wish to learn more about AFC’s minimum requirements, please visit AngelFlightCentral.org. To learn more about Vitalant, visit their website at Vitalant.org. Both organizations would also greatly appreciate any charitable contribution to continue their work into the future.