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Devil of a time on Angel Flight

Jon Sham
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
My mission was to film and photograph, despite being generally afraid of heights and flights

Budget eight hours for the mission, Derward Brooks told me. We were going to need a whole day for this.

Our mission was a three-leg flight: from Baltimore to Philadelphia to Lynchburg, Va., and back to Baltimore. A retired accountant, general aviation pilot and North Laurel resident, Brooks had volunteered to help fly a cancer patient home.

My mission was to film and photograph, despite being generally afraid of heights and flights.

Brooks met his co-pilot, Larry Esser, of Glen Burnie, at a small airfield behind Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport at 9 a.m. on June 10. Esser was already prepping the single-engine Cessna — the Skylane II — when we arrived.

The inside of the cabin was about the size of a compact sedan, fitting the pilot and co-pilot up front and two snug passengers in the back. Brooks had to confirm the combined weight of my body and my equipment before agreeing to take me, which didn't help with my fears.

With three camera bodies, some audio equipment, lenses and spare batteries, I easily made weight. He also warned me that the ride was going to be a bit bumpier than what one might experience on a commercial jet.

Brooks and Esser worked mostly off iPads, which were loaded with apps to track the flight path and conditions. Aside from the take-offs and landings, Brooks barely had to touch the yoke, thanks to autopilot.

All aboard had to clamp on a pair of Bose noise-canceling headsets to drown out the sound of the otherwise deafening propeller. With the sets on, we could communicate with each other and air traffic control.

The first take-off and flight were relatively smooth — that is, compared to the second, which was a whole new world of terror for me.

We had arrived in Philadelphia just before 11 a.m., where we met our passenger, Marleene DeNardo. She lives in Sylva, N.C., and had connected with Brooks through the nonprofit Angel Flight East, which offers free transport for treatment to people with serious illnesses. She is being treated for inflammatory breast cancer by a specialist in the Philadelphia area.

Pilots like Brooks volunteer at Angel Flights to help patients travel to their appointments more quickly, because long road trips can take an additional toll on a person undergoing treatment.

This was not DeNardo's first flight, a fact that became more evident to me as we departed for Lynchburg.

At the start of that flight, we were met by the fluffiest, white clouds you could ever expect to see. I'm sure they looked idyllic from the ground. But from the cabin of a single-engine plane, they make an otherwise easy flight feel like the worst parts of a rickety, wooden roller coaster.

Without warning, we would jolt up into the air, or quickly sink. My stomach tossed with every movement as we ascended 6,000, 7,000 feet. I kept a hand clutched to the bench below me and one behind my back, a sort of self-made seatbelt. My knuckles turned white as I tightened my grip.

And then I looked over at DeNardo, who was just as calm as I was anxious.

She was posting pictures to Instagram and sending texts to her teenage daughter, while I cowered in the corner. She asked if I was OK and laughed a bit at how unpleasant this was for me.

Eventually we made it past the clouds, and Brooks settled us into a more comfortable glide.

The flight path this time took us southwest from Philadelphia, over Western Maryland and then south, where we hit Lynchburg about 90 minutes later. There we met Edward Rapp, a volunteer with AFE sister organization Angel Flight Soars. Rapp would take DeNardo the rest of the way to Sylva.

Our return trip took us south and then east of Washington. I watched the outlines of the islands and peninsulas as we traced our way up the coast line of the Chesapeake Bay. We came up around and flew parallel to the Bay Bridge before touching down at BWI around 4:30 p.m.

And maybe it was because I had gotten used to it after several hours, or maybe it was because of DeNardo's calm, but this time I was ready for the rocky descent. My grip on the bench was looser, my teeth not gritting quite so hard and my fear significantly diminished.

We didn't talk much about her disease, but I thought to myself that if DeNardo could face it head on, I should be able to handle a rough plane ride.

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