Angel's wings a saving grace
Flying a boy to a hospital appointment so he and his mother did not have to take a four-day round trip is like a dream coming to reality for recreational pilot Lance Weller.
The Tutukaka resident is the founder of Angel Flight New Zealand, which provides free flights to hospital ap pointments for needy rural patients.
Mr Weller first came across Angel Flight when living in Australia and he volunteered as a pilot for the charity there.
But when he moved back to New Zealand he noticed the absence of anything similar.
So he set up the New Zealand charity in just a few months.
Key to the programme is volunteer pilots who use their own planes to fly the patients. Volunteers called Earth Angels then transport the patient from the airport to the hospital and back again.
"We have now got 25 pilots and aircraft from here to Christchurch, 25 Earth Angels and four mission co-ordinators," he says.
Patients need to be cleared by their doctors for flight suitability and must be in financial need or hardship.
The flights are only for pre-booked hospital appointments or surgery, not emergency runs which are covered by rescue helicopters. Mr Weller says Angel Flight NZ has now done eight missions, all from Kaitaia to Auckland.
On August 7, Mr Weller was the volunteer pilot in his Cirrus SR20, the first time he has flown a mission in New Zealand.
The flight was for an 11-year-old Kaitaia boy who had an appointment at Middlemore Hospital for his cleft pallet.
The boy and his mother could have taken a bus down but it would have taken two days each way with an overnight stop in Whangarei, putting stress on the boy's five other siblings.
Mr Weller says he flew from Whangarei Airport in Onerahi to Kaitaia, picking the boy and his mother up at 9.30am. They landed at Whenuapai airbase at 10.25am where an Earth Angel was waiting to drive them to Middlemore Hospital.
After the appointment the Earth Angel drove them back to Whenuapai and they were able to get back to Kaitaia before 4pm.
Mr Weller says he was so pleased to be able to do the mission.
"It was a dream coming to reality. Also my first ever flight was from Whenuapai when I was 11 and this was the boy's first flight - there's a bit of a connection there.
"He was all eyes, watching everywhere. It went very well and the family appreciated it very much."
Mr Weller says he would now like to expand to other areas of the country where hospital transport is needed.
More patient referrals are also encouraged.
"At the moment we're not getting a lot of requests because people don't know about us. I think on one level people don't believe it's free."
Go to angelflightnz.co.nz for more information.