By MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Staff Photographer | Published November 17, 2005
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast nearly three months ago and the larger relief agencies responded to victims on the ground, Angel Flight of Georgia (AFGA), a small nonprofit group located in the administration building of Atlanta’s DeKalb Peachtree Airport, took to the air to offer assistance to those in need.
For over 20 years AFGA has provided air transportation at no charge to people with medical needs who lack the financial means to reach their destination for treatment or who because of immune deficiencies cannot take a commercial flight or public transportation.
Normally, AFGA conducts these aerial feats of mercy between the states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and the Carolinas. However, Katrina’s widespread destruction and devastation transformed AFGA into a temporary disaster relief and rescue operation.
Recruiting for this massive undertaking was unnecessary because so many calls came into the AFGA office from Angel Flight pilots, as far away as California, and “earth angels” (non-pilot volunteers) who offered to pitch in. About 400 pilots stepped forward to help.
The first of over 440 AFGA Katrina-related missions took place on Tuesday, Aug. 30, the day after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico. AFGA received a call from a man named Larry Nichols in Atlanta who wanted AFGA to fly him to Mobile, Ala. so he could go from there to pick up his two children in Hurley, Miss. Within two hours of Nichols’ request, AFGA pilots were enlisted for the mission, an airplane was loaded with baby supplies and bottled water, and Nichols was on his way to Mobile. Upon landing, Nichols rented a van and retrieved his children, and AFGA pilots were back in Atlanta that same day.
In addition to uniting families, AFGA took on the role of delivering supplies. Mark Stuckey, a 37-year-old Macon attorney who specializes in medical malpractice and aviation litigation, became an Angel Flight pilot in January of this year. Stuckey, the Grand Knight for the Knights of Columbus’ Msgr. Thomas Sheehan Council 925, said, “I wanted to do something in aviation that involved public service. Through Angel Flight, I have the ability to help adults and children receive the treatment they need—both in a timely manner and without cost to them. To me, being able to help people when their need is greatest—and to do it by flying—is about the greatest reward there is.”
Stuckey flew donations to a family from Pass Christian, Miss., who had survived the hurricane but lost all of their possessions in the process. The husband was serving in Iraq, and the family, which included a mother, a 6-month-old boy and a grandmother, had evacuated to Magee, Miss., but they had no clothes or furniture.
Stuckey said, “We pulled out the back seat of the plane (his Sierra BE24), and we put a crib, a changing table and a whole bunch of clothes back there.” Various people in the Macon area, including his parish community of St. Joseph Church, donated many of the items.
Soon AFGA was fielding requests by the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness for food, bedding and other supplies for the shelters they were setting up in the Baton Rouge area. This meant appealing to its board of directors and donors in order to raise money quickly to purchase items. AFGA’s largest donor wrote a check for $150,000 on the day the request was made.
The “fuel and throttle” behind the engine that keeps Angel Flight airborne are mission coordinator Bernadette Darnell and executive director Jeanine Chambers Biron, a mother-daughter team. The pair attend Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta. Darnell volunteered at AFGA a couple of years before its founder Jim Shafer, a medical industry professional and “lover of aviation,” died in 1995. She recruited Biron as a volunteer in 1996, and the following year Biron became a board member.
AFGA lost some of its energy after Shafer’s death, and Biron is credited with breathing new life back into the organization once she came on staff full-time in 1999. In 2000 she pulled her mother from the volunteer ranks and hired her to help coordinate the missions.
For a time following the hurricane, AFGA received updated lists every day from the shelters in Baton Rouge for supplies needed. They put the list on their Web site, and the community responded overwhelmingly in a variety of ways.
“We worked very closely with Neiman Marcus. Their employees would take our lists and go shopping,” said Darnell.
Between the items AFGA purchased with cash donations and the ones people were bringing in, the group had a 90-foot tall hangar at the Mercury Air Center half-filled with supplies. Oglethorpe University students also came over daily to help the pilots load the planes.
“It was like a grocery store in there, and that went on for weeks,” said Biron. She added, “Mercury Air Center was absolutely tremendous to us. That’s very expensive storage space—an airport hangar—and they gave up half of it for us during a four-week period.” Mercury also donated fuel at cost to the pilots to help make the missions more affordable.
At the height of the crisis, 25 pilots a day were flying out of DeKalb Peachtree Airport. There were also missions departing from Gwinnett County Airport; Cobb County Airport-McCollum Field; Peachtree City Airport; Valdosta; Cullman, Montgomery, and Muscle Shoals, Ala.; and Crossville, Tenn.
“In the middle of all this we had to upgrade our telephone system because it couldn’t handle the volume of calls coming in,” said Darnell. Hewitt Associates, a global human resources outsourcing and consulting firm, and an AFGA supporter, provided services to AFGA for three weeks. Our Lady of the Assumption parishioner Tom Halaburt, a Hewitt Associates office leader at one of their two Atlanta locations, helped sign up 50 employees, and they sent over eight to 10 of them daily to help staff the office during its normal business hours. Darnell, Biron, and volunteers ran the office during the evening hours, often past 11 p.m., for nearly a two-week stretch.
Around Sept. 6, AFGA started directing pilots to the overlooked areas receiving little or no aid—places like Mansfield, La., and Poplarville and Pascagoula, Miss. They discovered Pascagoula was actually a hub for sending out supplies to other surrounding places.
“So as it turns out, we know of approximately 50 different communities we helped with food, medicine, bedding, tents, clothing and all the basic essentials,” said Biron.
Margie Jameson, a member of All Saints Church, Dunwoody, collected supplies and $900 through e-mail appeals to friends, the Marist (School) Mother’s Prayer Group, Song of Atlanta Show Chorus, and neighbors in her subdivision. Angel Flight agreed to fly the items down to Mansfield to support the shelters operated by The Restoration Center at Union Springs Baptist Church. In turn, Jameson and her friends helped AFGA organize the enormous number of contributions in the Mercury Air Center by weight.
Jameson said, “We had a common goal to help those in need during a disaster situation. We had the donations and supplies, and they had the pilots and planes. The two of us found each other.”
The connection turned out to be a mutually beneficial partnership akin to the ones that were formed with St. Ann Church, Marietta, Apria Healthcare Systems, Emory Hospital and the St. Vincent de Paul Society – Atlanta Council.
On Oct. 20, the final AFGA Katrina mission was carried out by pilots Kerwin Day of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, and one of his former student pilots, Urban Schneider, from the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta. Coincidentally, Day and another student pilot had flown the very first AFGA Katrina mission. Day, a veteran flight instructor, has been an Angel Flight pilot since 2001, flying about 20 missions a year since 2002. Darnell refers to him as the “AFGA ambassador” because he recruits every pilot he runs into.
After an engine malfunction in Schneider’s single-engine Cirrus SR22 airplane delayed the mission, the pilots secured a 30-year-old Piper Cherokee Arrow. “Peachtree Tower, Compassion Flight 091 Tango ready for take off,” radioed Day. Two and half hours later they landed in Pascagoula, Miss., where they picked up a female passenger and brought her back to Atlanta. From Atlanta, Angel Flight pilot Geoff Nye took her to Fredericksburg, Va., her final destination.
Reflecting on AFGA’s Katrina relief work, Biron said, “We learned a lot. Moving cargo was a new area of expertise for us to learn. We schedule flights for people on demand every day, but in this case there were so many people, so desperate to get out of where they were. Normally we take people to places of hope and help for medical treatment. During times like this we bring the help and hope to the affected areas.”