When Andy Weiner and Mike Giordano don their headsets and depart from Cross Keys Airport, they’re just a couple of local pilots in a small plane. By the time they hit the runway at Logan International in Boston, they’ve become angels. The men are longtime volunteers with Angel Flight Northeast, a nonprofit organization that provides air transportation to medical patients and their families, free of charge. About 40 percent of those the organization serves are children suffering from life-threatening cancer, severe burns or crippling diseases who need treatment at medical centers far from home.

“I started flying for Angel Flight about 10 years ago,” says Weiner, a 63-year-old Haddonfield resident. “I find it extremely rewarding. I’ve done between 50 and 70 flights; most of them for burn victims going to Shriners in Boston or cancer patients coming into Philadelphia. These are people from states where there’s not great medical care or people who need really specialized treatment.”

Ethan Dutan takes monthly Angel Flights to Boston for hearing tests

Ethan Dutan takes monthly Angel Flights to Boston for hearing tests

One such passenger is Ethan Dutan, a 3-year-old boy with a shy grin and a penchant for mini M&Ms. Ethan was born deaf and was not a candidate for cochlear implants. In January, Ethan received an auditory brain stem implant, becoming one of the youngest patients in the world to undergo the revolutionary brain surgery. Now he travels from his home in Allentown to the Boston Shiners Hospital every month for hearing tests to monitor his progress. Without the help of Angel Flight, his mother Ana Juca says, the family would have to take a bus or rent a car – a tall order when you have seven hungry boys at home.

“It’s not easy for a mother of seven to do that, especially for two days every month,” says Juca, 39. “When he had his surgery, my husband rented a car and we drove to Boston. It was so expensive. The people at the hospital told me about Angel Flight, and we’ve been flying every month since.”

Those regular visits are paying off for Ethan. Though he and his mother now communicate through a combination of sign language and verbal shorthand, he did not speak at all before the implant surgery.

“The first time he spoke, I was on the phone with my sister,” Juca says. “Ethan said his brother’s name – Jonathan – and my sister and I started screaming and crying. I handed Ethan the phone, and he said, ‘Hi Tia!’ When he gave the phone back we both just kept saying, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that? Oh my God!’”

Ethan seems at home in Weiner’s six-seat Piper Malibu, despite the rumble of the JetPROP engine and the occasional bout of turbulence. Juca focuses on her son for the short ride from Boston to Allentown, putting aside her own anxieties about flying.

Ana Juca, Ethan’s mother, conquered her fear of flying during their first Angel Flight

Ana Juca, Ethan’s mother, conquered her fear of flying during their first Angel Flight

“Before our first flight to Boston, I’d only been on a plane once,” she says. “After 24 years in America, I flew home to Ecuador and it was terrible. I was so afraid I said I’d never fly again. Then when it came time to take an Angel Flight, I just thought, ‘My baby needs to go,’ and the fear went away.”

Weiner, a practiced pilot who’s been flying for nearly three decades, donates his time, talent, fuel and operating costs to Angel Flight whenever he can. He caters to his passengers, requesting better routes and shortcuts, and tailoring his flight style to the patient aboard. When an air traffic controller at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown asks if 900 feet per minute is really his fastest possible rate of descent, Weiner replies authoritatively, “It is with the passengers I have on board.”

“Actually, I could lose altitude way faster,” the pilot says with a wink, “but Ethan would feel it in his ears.”

Seated to Weiner’s right during the flights is Medford’s Giordano, 55, whose duties include navigating, analyzing weather reports and acting as tour guide, pointing out beaches, mountain ridges and city skylines during the flight. Giordano is a one-man welcoming committee, greeting the day’s passengers with broad smiles, firm handshakes and friendly high-fives. Once they’re buckled into their seats, he hands them a scrapbook he’s put together that includes photos of past Angel Flight passengers, information about the plane and its crew, and a handful of poignant, handwritten thank-you notes from patients and their families.

“I keep the book to show passengers they’re safe with us, we know what we’re doing and we’ve done it before,” Giordano says. “At the same time, it shows them how special they are to us – almost every person we’ve flown has a photo in there, and they’re all happy and smiling. People get anxious about flying in a small plane, and I think it sets their minds at ease.”

The scrapbook also includes photos of Weiner and Giordano in Haiti, where they flew in 2010 in the days after a major earthquake devastated the island nation.

“We got a call about going down there. They wanted us to take an X-ray machine into Port-au-Prince, but it wouldn’t fit in the plane,” Giordano says. “We decided we were going anyway, and we stayed there for a week, shuttling in doctors, nurses and equipment. We were based in Nassau, Bahamas, and we’d fly into Haiti every day with the plane full of whoever and whatever we could bring with us.”

Though Weiner and Giordano are happy to fly just about anywhere to help those in need, one of Angel Flight’s most frequent flyers only lives a few minutes from the airport.

Nine-year-old Marlton resident Mason Hicks has taken approximately 120 Angel Flights in the past seven years, flying to Shriners’ Boston burn unit for surgeries and skin grafts.

“When Mason was 2 years old, he was burned over 85 percent of his body in a house fire,” says his father, Matt Hicks.

“In 2010, we started going to Shriners for reconstructive surgeries and procedures. We’ve been there somewhere between 50 and 60 times since then. Without Angel Flight, I mean think about it – for the two of us to come back and forth it’d be more than $500 a shot. You’re talking like $60,000.”

Hicks credits Angel Flight with the fact that Mason, who doctors said would never walk again, took his first steps more than a year ago and hasn’t slowed down since.

“Mason lives with his burns. He’s never going to be back to normal, but he’s come such a long way,” Hicks says. “He’s gone from a 3-year-old boy who could barely get out of his wheelchair to a kid running around playing soccer at school with his friends. He’s going to keep having surgeries for a long time – at least until he stops growing, and after that I have no idea – but I can tell you we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are now without the Angel Flights.

“When he grows up, Mason says he wants to be a hockey player and a pilot, and fly the team around to all their games. A lot of doctors told me he’d never walk, and today he can play soccer – who am I to tell him no?”

Weiner, who inherited a lucrative swatch of Wildwood boardwalk purchased by his grandfather in 1918, is the first to tell you life’s been kind to him. He sees the work he does with Angel Flight as his way of giving back. He says getting to know his passengers and their families always puts things in perspective and helps to keep him humble.

“One of the first Angel Flights I ever did was for a woman with a small baby who’d been born with one of her organs outside her body,” Weiner says. “When you see things like that, you really stop and think about what’s important.

“I’m so lucky. People moan and groan about things like the weather or bills, and I think, ‘Yeah, OK.’ If I could do an Angel Flight every day, I would. I especially like to fly at night. With the stars above and the lights below, you feel like you’re close to God. And when there are people in the back of your plane who really need your help, and you have the opportunity and the means to help them – well, I guess you do kind of feel like an angel.”

October 2015
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