Volunteer pilots fly ill to medical treatments

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Kevin Smith had a nearly 5-pound, melon-sized tumor removed from his abdomen late last year.

Physicians at Northport DCH suggested that Smith receive follow-up treatment from specialists at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

But with appointments required every six weeks, the trips to Houston could become expensive for the Northport family.

Staff at the DCH Cancer Center referred Smith to Angel Flight Soars, a program that pairs pilots with people in need of medical treatment. Volunteers donate their time, plane and fuel costs to help those in need.

Smith, 46, and his wife, Chantelle, flew with Tuscaloosa pilots Bill Hardy and Mary Harmon Moman home from an appointment in Houston on Friday.

"They've been nothing but kind and generous," Smith said Friday. "This is much more convenient, being able to go in and out of Tuscaloosa instead of having to go out of Birmingham."

Smith had a primitive neuroectodermal embriogenic tumor (PNET). He will require appointments in Houston every six weeks until November, when he hopes to receive a clean bill of health.

Hardy, a semi-retired corporate pilot who lives in Tuscaloosa, volunteers to fly people from and to areas all through the Southeast.

"It's just a good thing to do for people who need the transportation getting to and from their medical treatments," he said. "We'll pick people up from remote airports, too — Bessemer, Monroeville, any small airport — and take them to the larger medical facilities in bigger cities."

Angel Flight Soars is a nonprofit organization. The money it raises pays for administrative costs. The volunteer pilots pay all expenses of the flights.

"We have so much thanks and gratitude for them. They've been sweet and nothing but supportive," Smith said. Flying in and out of Tuscaloosa allows the couple to spend less time away from their children, who are 17, 14, 8 and 2.

Angel Flight Soars was formed in 1983 as a group of volunteer pilots and today serves patients in six states.

The organization coordinated 2,448 missions last year, said Lauren Ballard, director of the Alabama branch, which is based at the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport. Since 2010, 62 flights have been coordinated in and out of Tuscaloosa, she said. Angel Flight Soars' main office is in Atlanta, with other offices in Greenwood, S.C., St. Simons Island, Ga., and Tuscaloosa.

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