Sky's the limit for volunteer medical 'Angel Flight' pilots serving Fort McMurray

Medical issues can be costly when rural Albertans consider costs of food, travel, hotels and lost wages. A network of volunteer pilots is making it cheaper and faster for rural Albertans to reach medical appointments.

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Even basic health care can be an expensive ordeal when doctors are sparse and medical specialists mostly work in Edmonton and Calgary. But a network of volunteer pilots is making it cheaper and faster for rural Albertans to reach medical appointments. Ryan Abel, a Fort McMurray-based pilot and flight instructor, has been offering the service in the region.

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Abel is one of 19 people offering their planes and piloting expertise through Angel Flight Alberta, a charitable group that flies people from remote areas to health services in larger cities. Most pilots are based around Edmonton and Calgary, and the busiest route is between Edmonton and the Grande Prairie area. Abel says there is a growing demand for the service in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo, but few resources.

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“More people honestly need help reaching their appointments than need to get flown out of here for emergency stuff,” said Abel. “I’ve also had situations when people need help getting back. I had someone who was flown out of here to be treated for tuberculosis, but they had no way to get back to Fort McMurray. I was able to do that really quickly.”

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Angel Flight is a response to a common problem in many of Canada’s rural communities. Medical treatments may be free, but people can lose thousands of dollars on food, hotels, travel and missed wages when they need to travel regularly to cities for treatments.

Organizations like Ronald McDonald House can offer help, but it’s common for people to resort to cyberbegging on websites like GoFundMe for help. Families often leave their home communities when someone faces serious medical issues.

Abel felt some of that frustration in 2017 when he needed bypass surgery behind his leg. His sister drove him back to Fort McMurray from Edmonton, but the experience showed the challenges of traveling for medical issues in Alberta.

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“I realized there has to be a need for this in Fort McMurray, especially on the accessibility side of things,” said Abel. “Otherwise it can be significantly expensive and challenging for people, especially families. How do you get there? Get back? I’ve heard a lot of those stories.”

john o'connor
Dr. John O’Connor poses for a photo at the Fort Chipewyan Nursing Station in a file photo from 2010. O’Connor is on the board of directors for YMM Angel Flight. Ryan Jackson/Postmedia Network

Abel says YMM Angel Flight is in its infancy. Angel Flight Alberta reimburses pilots for fuel, but not for wear-and-tear. Many privately-owned planes can’t carry people who are in wheelchairs, use walkers, or are severely obese. There’s also pilots who want to help but don’t own their own aircraft.

Rural residents also need to travel to Fort McMurray for the service. Fuel is limited in Fort Chipewyan and the landing field in Janvier is in rough shape. There is also a shortage of pilots and flight instructors across Canada, including Fort McMurray.

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But the volunteer service is a labour of love for pilots, many of whom balance careers and personal lives. Abel says one pilot recorded 250 hours of flying time alone between Grande Prairie and Edmonton for Angel Flights.

“I’ve sent a few patients that otherwise would have needed to take a commercial flight or the highway,” said Dr. John O’Connor, who has worked in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, and is on the board of YMM Angel Flight. “Our needs are going up, especially with the complexity of the patients we get at our hospital. They don’t qualify for an air ambulance but they still need help that isn’t available here.”

Abel hopes to use a new, six-seat aircraft recently bought by McMurray Aviation. That plane can fit people with mobility or size issues, said Abel, and is rugged enough to fly in harsh conditions. Pilots who don’t own their own aircraft could charter the plane for Angel Flight services, and YMM Angel Flight could cover maintenance through fundraising and sponsorships.

“If we can demonstrate that a service is easy and convenient and reliable and has consistency, then I’m sure that the use will just ramp up very quickly,” said Abel. “And flying is an addictive hobby.”

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