By Michael W. Sasser
It started, simply enough, with one man’s desire to fly.
In 1991, Tulsa’s Doug E. Vincent purchased an airplane large enough to carry passengers and wanted to use it to help people. After all, the longtime recreational pilot felt that taking to the deep blue skies of the Midwest was an expensive proposition under any circumstances. If he was going to fly routinely anyway, why not find a way to help people in the process?
“There wasn’t any other organization around Oklahoma doing it, but I thought there must be other pilots around who felt the same way that I did,” Vincent said. “That was 18 years ago. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
Not that Vincent would have had it any other way. Today, the organization he envisioned and founded is an invaluable source of relief and assistance to numerous residents who might otherwise endure tremendous hardships, or worse – they might not be around today at all.
Vincent might not seem like a likely Oklahoma state treasure. He’s the child of a Louisiana farm family, and his accent today still bears evidence to that. After college, he went into the energy business, which took him around the globe, living overseas for 12 years. He ended up in Tulsa because it was where his company’s headquarters was located, and decided to stay.
“I’ve lived in a lot of big cities around the world, and I could have moved anywhere, but I live here because I like it here,” Vincent said.
Vincent had started flying in the late 1960s but did not get much of a chance to fly while he was busy building his career and traveling for business. He resumed flying in 1986.
It was just a few years later that Vincent began envisioning a means by which to combine his love of flight with an altruistic nature that he still finds hard to specifically define.
“Well, this was something from the heart – something that lets a person provide direct help to an individual,” Vincent said. “Not a lot of charitable endeavors allow that.”
Vincent’s vision was to fly non-emergency medical patients to appointments elsewhere in the country. There were several other “Angel Flight” operations around the country and an organization that linked them. However, there were holes in the network that included the Oklahoma area. Rather than join the Angel Flight organization, Vincent chose instead to work and link with them while retaining independence.
“There are lots of people who just like to fly, but would like to actually do something,” Vincent said. “Instead of flying around and getting hamburgers, pilots like to be able to get something done.”
Vincent mentioned his idea to a friend at a business meeting. The friend had a solid suggestion.
“He told me to do the first flight and make sure to get press coverage,” Vincent recalled. “That’s exactly what we did. The phone started ringing off the hook. Many pilots called to say they wanted to get involved. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it did then and it worked. We have some guys still with us from the very beginning in 1991.”
Thus was born Angel Flight Oklahoma (officially Angel Flight, Inc.). Over the past 18 years, hundreds of medical patients, from children to the elderly, have been shuttled to necessary appointments with doctors and at hospitals around the region and, by linking to pilots outside the state, the country.
Angel Flight’s official mission states that it “arranges free air transportation for needy patients and health care organizations by volunteers.” It is a non-profit charitable organization of pilots, volunteers and friends. Angel Flight arranges transportation of those people who are financially distressed or who are in a time-critical, non-emergency situation due to their medical condition. Pilots must be licensed, certified, and must adhere to FAA regulations. Angel Flight serves all of Oklahoma from its Tulsa office. To connect outside the Heartland, pilots connect with those of similar organization to link transportation for patients.
In the 18 years since its founding, Angel Flight has never held a fundraiser. A few donations come in that pay for the few necessities such as phone and fax. Otherwise, it is staffed and its efforts fueled by professional volunteers.
“Pilots donate everything,” Vincent said. “We get a request and we find a pilot willing to do it. We have 80 or so pilots right now whom we can call. Some fly a lot, while some fly only once a year. But even once a year helps one more person.”
Some groups are focused on getting bigger, but Vincent says Angel Flight simply “will fly as much as we’re needed.”
“We’re known as a smaller group, but we’re well-respected.”
In evolving from desire to reality, Angel Flight endeavors to make difficult situations a little more tolerable for Oklahoma families.
“A lot of times, we’re able to help people avoid one more stress than they would otherwise have,” Vincent said. “If a patient needs to go to a hospital or medical center that’s a long way from home, they already have so much to worry about, they don’t need to worry about how they’re going to get there. We’ve had patients who needed to go to Duke University, for example. We don’t fly all the way there, but we connect with pilots from other organizations and get the patient there.”
Vincent humbly compares Angel Flight’s service to helping by driving a patient from Tulsa to see a doctor in Oklahoma City.
“Our planes are like our cars,” Vincent said.
Often, patients in need are fighting cancer and need to seek medical assistance at institutions that specialize in a particular type of treatment. Some patients only seek Angel Flight’s assistance once or twice. Other times, patient families and pilots establish long-term relationships.
“When you fly people over an extended period of time, you can become part of an extended family,” Vincent said. “Other times, a ‘thank you,’ a wave or a hug can be very touching.”
Vincent recalls the story of a little boy who was blind and enduring a battle with a brain tumor. For a number of years, Angel Flight pilots helped shuttle the boy to a specialist in North Carolina.
“He was a great person and his condition did not hamper him,” Vincent said. “He loved the world and everyone just loved him. We watched him grow up over the course of quite a few years. Cancer finally took him, but it never beat him.”
Teenaged Ana (name changed for privacy) is another Oklahoman who has benefited from the efforts of Angel Flight. Over the course of a relatively long-term relationship with Angel Flight, she has impressed pilots because of her singular independence and drive.
“Ana’s parents don’t speak much English, so she has made her own arrangements for years now,” Vincent said.
Other remarkable and striking stories abound – they are the stuff of Angel Flight.
Vincent is pleased at the course Angel Flight has taken.
“To me, it’s been very rewarding to know something that started as a hobby has helped so many people,” Vincent said. “Personally, I don’t like to donate to big charities. I like to give directly to people in need. I like the fact that nothing is wasted in Angel Flight – there are no big salaries and we aren’t just spending a lot of money.”
There is still room for improvement, Vincent notes. He said the organization would like more contacts with corporations that might have larger airplanes for occasions when necessary.
“We also have not been as successful as I would like us to be in reaching out and becoming known in outlying rural areas,” Vincent said.
These areas are still projects in the works for Angel Flight. Although Vincent doesn’t fly as much these days as he did when the organization was founded, he remains available to fly if needed.
In the meantime, he continues to help plot the course that Oklahoma’s own aerial angels will take.