Angel Flight provides a lift to those battling serious illness

For the Howard County Times
Angel Flight East gives pilot a purpose – helping those with serious illness

Marleene DeNardo needs to see a specialist 700 miles from her home every month or two for treatment of a rare and aggressive disease, an arduous journey that would take more than 10 hours by car.

But she has found another way to reach her destination that is much faster and free, thanks to the compassion of strangers.

Since learning about an air transportation service called Angel Flight East a year ago, the North Carolina resident has taken nine flights with volunteer pilots to Philadelphia, where she is being treated for inflammatory breast cancer.

One of those pilots - all of whom cover their patients' flight expenses - is Derward Brooks, a longtime North Laurel resident.

A retired accountant, Brooks, 67, recently flew out of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to pick up DeNardo in Philadelphia and bring her halfway home from her most recent treatment, turning over the second leg of the flight to another pilot in Lynchburg, Va.

"It would be difficult with my pain level to drive that far," said DeNardo, 41, who received her diagnosis six years ago. "And taking a commercial flight would cost too much.

"The generosity of people like Derward allows me to see a doctor who can treat my disease - and there aren't many of them in the country - that I otherwise couldn't afford to see."

Aside from giving their time, pilots supply the aircraft and pay for fuel and other operating costs, totaling about $130 per hour, Brooks said.

"We pilots take on this expense because we want to give something back," he said of public benefit flights, which alleviate financial and physical hardships for seriously ill patients. "I do this to make someone's life a little easier."

Brooks accepted his first Angel Flight East mission in July 2010, taking a 10-year-old boy and his father to a medical appointment, but didn't fly another patient for four years.

Long before he decided to volunteer his services, Brooks' wife, Susan, had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. She died of her illness in December 2010, five months after his first patient flight.

"Many of our passengers are battling cancer," said Brooks, who worked for the Rouse Company for 32 years and then did a five-year stint at General Growth Properties. "I am familiar with that battle."

Angel Flight East was started in 1993 in Blue Bell, Pa., by a small group of pilots who flew 17 trips in their first year. The nonprofit organization's 400 pilots now fly 500 missions annually in the 14 contiguous states from Virginia to Maine, said Jess Ames, programs and events coordinator.

Only stable, ambulatory patients are accepted and most are flown to distant medical appointments, frequently bringing along a friend or family member, she said.

While there are other air transportation services with Angel Flight in their names across the country, they are separate entities. Seven of them, including Angel Flight East, are members of Air Care Alliance, an international group of humanitarian flying organizations that often link up for regional trips to farther destinations, Ames said.

Brooks has taken on seven missions to various places, flying three times in 2014 and four times so far this year. Sometimes he is accompanied by a co-pilot.

After helping passengers to board the Cessna Skylane182 - a single-engine, four-seat plane owned by a friend - he offers them headphones to mute the loud noises from the engine and propellers.

"Flying on small aviation aircraft is a much different experience than on a commercial jet," he said. "As a pilot you feel more in control than as a passenger."

DeNardo greatly appreciates the concern shown by all the pilots, some of whom have even paid for a meal upon landing.

"Being in a small plane was nerve-racking at first, but getting to know the pilots and seeing their confidence helps," said DeNardo, whose current condition is stable. "It's a really big deal what people like Derward do, giving their time and using their own funds. They really want to make sure you're taken care of."

Brooks said he is likewise impressed by the cheerful disposition of his passengers.

"For the most part they all seem upbeat and positive," he said. "It's wonderful."

Brooks, who grew up in rural Virginia, said he never flew radio-controlled airplanes as a kid and only took his first airplane flight at age 13 when a neighbor with an airstrip offered him and his dad a ride.

"I was always fascinated by flying, though," he said.

In 1998 he decided to take lessons at BWI. Nearly 20 years later, the joy of flying is still difficult to put into words, he said.

"First, there's a sense of accomplishment in knowing I have the skill set necessary to do it," Brooks said, "and then there's a sense of freedom. We are flying much lower [than a commercial pilot does], and we see the country from a different perspective.

"Sunsets are beautiful and they are even more spectacular from the air looking down," he said. "One of my most memorable flights involved popping up through a cloud layer and flying on top of the clouds. It was fabulous."

Brooks flies recreationally twice a month, and volunteering has turned out to be the most rewarding way to take to the skies, he said.

Another patient, Felix Simmons, of Newport News, Va., has made several of his 30 Angel Flight East trips to Philadelphia with Brooks, whom he described as "respectful and easygoing."

Diagnosed in 2010 with multiple myeloma, Simmons, 59, said he was declared cancer-free in 2013 but continues to fly to checkups every three months.

"These [pilots] are beautiful undercover angels who use their abilities to help people," Simmons said. "They do this out of the kindness of their hearts, and I am living today because of it."

Brooks said all of his passengers express their gratitude, but it isn't necessary.

"These are life-changing missions and the patients are all very thankful," he said. "I would want to be flying anyway, so this work gives my flying a whole new purpose."

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