These Hero Pilots Volunteer to Fly the Very Sick to Help Save Their Lives

How heroes take flight to lift others in their most difficult moments.

march 2016 angels in america angel flightRon Haviv/VII for Reader's Digest

Larry Camerlin knows what desperation sounds like. Each week, his small Massachusetts office answers dozens of frantic phone calls from families of very sick people who hope Larry and his team can help. What they need are flights—to a liver or kidney transplant, to receive ongoing chemotherapy and radiation, or to treat severe burns or other crippling diseases at medical centers far away from home.

As the founder of Angel Flight Northeast, a group that connects patients in need with volunteer pilots who shepherd them, Larry, 68, has never turned away a request.

“People come to us at some of the most frightening times of their lives—they’re running out of money, out of time, and out of faith,” says Larry, who pilots some trips himself while also overseeing scheduling, fund-raising, and other administrative responsibilities. “We help replace that fear with tremendous healing and hope.”

Larry, a father of four and grand-father of six, has spent his entire career providing hope during trauma. He and his wife, Ruth, built a successful ambulance company, and after they sold the business in 1994, Larry got his pilot’s license. Then he read a magazine article about a pilot in California who flew a ten-year-old boy to receive cancer treatment and immediately knew what his next chapter would be.

“This enormous emotional wave hit me,” Larry says. “This is what God wants me to do.”

The first Angel Flight NE trip took to the skies on May 31, 1996. Today, Larry relies on a network of nearly 500 volunteer pilots who donate their own time, planes, and fuel. Larry’s crews on the ground, Earth Angels, drive patients to and from the airport. To date, Angel Flight NE has helped 65,000 people. Bonds between patients and pilots can last for weeks, months, or longer. One cancer patient took more than 585 trips over ten years. And every single one—for every single patient—is free of charge.

“Sometimes patients can’t talk to their family about their fears, but being up in the heavens, it’s therapeutic to talk to a pilot helping you get better,” Larry says. “Mothers, if their children are asleep, may break down about how difficult it is to see their kids so badly hurt.” Not every journey, of course, has a storybook ending. Larry had been flying a boy with a life-threatening genetic disorder from Maine to Boston for years.

“He was witty, fun, and insightful—an 11-going-on-40-with-a-PhD-from-Harvard type,” says Larry. One day, he got a call from the boy’s mother: “Benjamin [name has been changed] is dying, and he would like to see you.” Larry flew there the next day.

“Why does God hate me?” Benjamin asked Larry. “I’m only a little boy, and I’m dying. I shouldn’t be dying as a little boy.” Larry thought for a second. “Look how smart you are, how good you are, how many people you’ve touched,” he said. “God needs you to be one of his special angels. He loves you so much; that’s why he wants you.”

That flight home from Benjamin’s house felt different from usual. “The closer I got to home, the sky became more flushed with yellow and orange,” Larry remembers. “The sun dipped below the horizon as I touched down my wheels. Everything was so ethereal. It was like God was telling me everything was going to be OK.”

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