Cruising at 8,000 feet, Sandie LeBlanc took in the scenery below en route to Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, for her lung-function testing.
For a moment, the sights freed her mind from the weight of health concerns.
“It’s so peaceful,” said LeBlanc, who suffers from lupus and is also a breast cancer survivor, “and I often forget about why I’m flying as I focus on all the beauty around me.”
One thing she never forgets, however, is how these trips are possible — thanks to the 1,500 volunteer pilots of Angel Flight West who have flown LeBlanc and more than 30,000 other patients and their families for lifesaving medical care since the nonprofit’s launch in 1983.
During this particular trip, that pilot was Wells Fargo Advisors financial advisor Fritz Glasser, operating the controls of his personal Beechcraft A36 Bonanza airplane.
“Flights like these have helped me take back my health, since I could not make the six-hour drive from where I live near the Oregon coast to Stanford, and there are few flights available,” said LeBlanc. “It would take me two days at least to recover from a drive like that, and these flights save the wear and tear on my body.”
LeBlanc first learned of Angel Flight West through Stanford University Medical Center when an undetermined virus left her late son unable to walk or talk. She took her first flight as a patient in 2007.
“Fritz and the other pilots are like angels to me because of what this service means,” LeBlanc said.
Love of flight
Glasser traces his love of flying to a childhood spent partly in Asia, where he traveled on many different types of airplanes. In 2006, family friend Kevin Fox gave him a ride in his private plane, and Glasser was hooked.
He earned his pilot’s license in early 2007, bought his first plane later that year, and joined Fox as an Angel Flight West volunteer pilot in 2008.
Since then, Glasser has completed 23 flights for the nonprofit from Gnoss Field in Novato, California — mostly within Northern California to pick up patients in Arcata, Redding, Woodland, and other California communities with limited transportation services, but sometimes traveling even farther in the state.
His longest Angel flight was 300 miles, from Concord to Santa Monica.
Glasser first began volunteering in college, when he taught 8- to 14-year-olds how to race sailboats. In addition to his volunteer flights for Angel Flight West, he’s currently an assistant mountain bike team coach at a local high school.
“My wife and I are grateful for the safe and positive community in which we have been able to raise our two boys (currently 16 and 19), and I do this to help give others the same opportunities,” he said.
‘We’re here and can help’
Cheri Cimmarrusti is associate executive director of Angel Flight West which, from a small office in Santa Monica Airport, works with pilots, patients, and health care providers to arrange nearly 35 flights daily in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
At any one time, Cimmarrusti said, about 15 flights are in the air.
“We have about 3,500 volunteers in our 13 states,” she said. “Those who can’t fly drive people to and from the airports to the hospitals and clinics for treatment or assist with outreach, pilot recruitment, and other tasks.
“Our biggest challenge is making the health care community aware we’re here and can help,” she said. “People are most surprised to find out pilots like Fritz volunteer not only their expertise and plane, but all the cost of flying, including fuel. Without pilots like Fritz and what they provide for patients, our service simply wouldn’t be possible.”
‘I feel like I’ve touched part of heaven’
Glasser said flying 6- and 8-year-old sisters to a camp for burn victims and a 12-year-old cancer patient and his family to Comic-Con International are among his most treasured experiences with Angel Flight West.
“When I arrived to pick up the girls, they were alone, as their parents could not be late for work and had to leave them at the airport,” Glasser said. “At the destination, I unloaded their luggage, and when I went to give the 8-year-old her backpack, she brushed it away, gave me a hug, and said her first words of the trip, ‘Thank you for bringing us. I have been looking forward to this all year.’
“The 12-year-old boy was experiencing a relapse of metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma (a cancer of the muscle tissues), and was obviously very sick but thrilled to go to the Comic-Con convention,” Glasser said. “He sat up in front with me, and I let him actually fly the plane for a little bit, which he loved.
“It melts your heart to give children experiences like that,” he said. “It’s been a privilege to help Angel Flight West carry out their mission and community impact, particularly in rural areas.”
LeBlanc said the pilots’ gift of time, money, and equipment nearly move her to tears each time she makes an Angel Flight West flight. Her recent trip with Glasser was her 44th flight with 34 different Angel Flight West Pilots since 2007.
“Fritz and the other pilots I’ve flown with are amazing people and truly a godsend,” she said. “Whenever I fly, I feel like I’ve touched part of heaven.”
Wells Fargo Advisors is a trade name used by Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC, Member SIPC, a registered broker-dealer and non-bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company.