DETROIT (AP) — Elaine Jerry arrived at Hanley Field Airport in Munising with a suitcase in tow and sunglasses on to protect her eyes from the bright sun.
Jerry, 58, stepped into a red-and-white, 1968 single-engine plane with a four-person carrying capacity. It was parked next to the airport office, a small white building that used to be a house.
The door shut, the propeller started and the plane began moving down the 4,000-foot grass runway.
"This is my favorite part," Jerry said as the plane lifted into the air.
The Detroit native, who moved to the remote area in the Upper Peninsula 18 years ago, needed to get to Ann Arbor to have surgery on her right eye. She is going blind from panuveitis, which caused inflammation in her eyes and cataracts to develop.
"We have no specialist in the Upper Peninsula," she said. "There's no one in the area that can help with what I have."
Getting to and from Munising — population 2,355 — can be time-consuming and expensive, especially when driving isn't an option.
Volunteer pilots such as Richard (Dick) Lawrence make it possible for Jerry and others in similar financial and geographic situations to get where they need to go for specialized medical treatment.
Dozens of organizations nationwide — several of them based in Michigan — coordinate thousands of flights for people in need each year.
In 2011, pilots flew roughly 46,100 volunteer missions in all 50 states, according to statistics compiled for the Air Care Alliance, which is made up of a group of organizations that provide charitable flights. Many of those are counted as multiple missions because they involve legs of the same trip, with pilots taking turns flying part of the way.
The majority of the flights — piloted by 18,700 volunteers — were for medical reasons.
Pilots use their own planes to fly people to medical facilities hundreds of miles away, and the ride is free for the passenger. In many cases, the patients find out about charitable flying from hospital employees.
"They're not going because it's fun," Lawrence said. "They're going because it's a critical element of getting the treatment."
Jerry gave up driving on highways about four years ago because of her poor vision.
She doesn't have children, and her husband, parents and brother have all died, so she doesn't have anyone to take her on the 400-mile, nearly seven-hour drive. A commercial flight -- with tickets often priced at $600 or more from a nearby airport -- isn't an option.
"That is definitely not in my budget," she said.
Lawrence, 71, picked Jerry up at Munising's airport, off the shore of Lake Superior and near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and flew her to the Livingston County Spencer J. Hardy Airport in Howell on Aug. 29 -- a trip that took about two hours.
"There are more remote locations in Michigan, which make it more difficult for some people to reach their destination," Lawrence said. "What we can do in a few hours might take them all day."
After arriving in Howell, Jerry was picked up by a friend. The next day, she went to the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center for cataract surgery. Jerry said she initially hoped the surgery would help her preserve the vision she had left, but it actually improved her sight.
"It's just like somebody turned a light on," she said. "Everything's brighter."
Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic coordinated Jerry's flight -- her third so far this year. This week, she's expected to fly back to have the surgery on her other eye. "I just don't know what kind of treatment I'd ever be able to get if it weren't for them," Jerry said.
Nationwide, more than 65 organizations are supported by the Air Care Alliance, and more than a half dozen of those help transport people in Michigan.
"You have some that are very large, well-staffed," Air Care Alliance President Lindy Kirkland said. "Then you have some that are very, very small mom-and-pop."
The alliance operates like a trade association. Each organization sets its own operating parameters. The amount of notice needed for a flight, financial need to qualify and who can be transported — most require passengers to be able walk onto the plane — vary.
Pilots donate their time, planes and often money out of their own pockets to cover maintenance, insurance, storage and aviation fuel.
They fly passengers in and out of Michigan for transplants, experimental surgeries and other treatments often available only at specific hospitals.
The flights can create challenges.
Bad weather can ground planned flights, and the cost of aviation fuel has increased over the years — averaging more than $6 a gallon. A four-seat plane typically burns nine to 15 gallons an hour.
In 1996, when Wings of Mercy East Michigan formed, fuel for an average trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where 50% of its patients go, cost about $250, organization president Cody Welch said. Fuel for the same trip runs about $1,000 today, he said.
Wings of Mercy East Michigan has about 50 volunteer pilots and tries to add 10 new each year for missions. But Welch said Michigan's aircraft population has shrunk in the last five years, affecting the ability to find new volunteers.
Statistics provided by the Federal Aviation Administration show 9,706 aircrafts were registered in Michigan in 2007. The number of aircraft was 9,279 in 2011 and is 9,455 this year.
"People get to the combine their passion with service to other people," Welch said. "That's a pretty good combo."
Lawrence of Hamburg Township has been flying for 35 years and started volunteering as a pilot in 2001 after retiring from the Environmental Protection Agency's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, where he worked as an engineer.
He now goes on about 20-25 charitable flights a year -- many for the nonprofit he founded called Kid's Wings, which focuses on transporting infants and children in need of medical treatment, but also helps adults in financial and medical need.
The flight he took Jerry on was his 197th charitable flight.
"One of my philosophies is: In life, you should do what you enjoy doing. Sometimes you'll get paid to do it, and sometimes you'll pay a little to do it," Lawrence said. "I enjoy helping people like this."
He often works with other pilots: One will fly a passenger part of the way, then another will continue the trip.
"It's often the case (that) while there may be a way for them to get treatment -- Medicare, Medicaid or insurance may pay it -- there's rarely a way for them to get there and have that transportation paid," he said.
Lawrence, who also volunteers for Lifeline Pilots and three regions of Angel Flight, is known for taking last-minute flights that would otherwise go unfilled.
"Without these flights, so many people would not be here today," said Suzanne Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic. "Because if they can't get to the treatments, then they can't be healed."
Katrael Scott, 13, needs to go to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for a double lung transplant.
The Roseville girl has an immune system disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis, which leads to weight loss and benign tumors in her lungs, spleen and liver. She weighs 65 pounds, has a feeding tube and receives around-the-clock oxygen.
Katrael, who started seventh grade and wants to be a nurse who works with babies, gets tired easily and hasn't been able to ride a bike or go to the pool for about five years.
Her family is waiting for the call that lungs are available.
"This could happen a week from now or a year from now," said her mother, Katrina Scott.
When they're alerted, the first call they need to make is to Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, which will begin contacting pilots who must then rush to the airport to get the teen to the hospital.
They thought the transplant was going to happen Aug. 18.
Katrael, who is one of six children, and her mother headed to Coleman A. Young International Airport in Detroit, where Lawrence picked them up to fly them to Pittsburgh. Katrael's father jumped in the car to start the five-hour drive.
It was the first flight ever for Katrael, and took slightly less than 90 minutes.
"My favorite was when Dick drove us through the clouds," Katrael said, proudly showing off cellphone pictures she snapped on the flight.
At the hospital, the doctor delivered bad news: They couldn't get a lung to inflate. If they put the lungs in Katrael, he told them, she probably wouldn't survive.
Scott said her daughter told the doctor, "It's going to be OK." He reached down to hug her, and she patted him on the back. They now wait for the next call and will once again turn to a volunteer pilot when it comes.
"Angels is what they actually are," Scott said. "I don't know what we would have done without them emotionally, physically and financially."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com