Volunteer pilot glad to give lift to patient

Three or four times a day, Bob Schaper logs onto the Angel Flight West website to search for his next assignment.

The volunteer pilot is so eager to fly humanitarian missions that last year he broke a record for all 13 states served by the organization based in Santa Monica, Calif. He completed 210 missions — an average of four round-trip flights per week — flying patients to doctor appointments across the Northwest and delivering donated blood to a Puget Sound Blood Center collection point at Boeing Field.

For Sierra Lorenzo, of Albany, Ore., Angel Flight West has been a part of life since she received a liver transplant in Seattle nine years ago. Every time she must see her doctors at Children’s Hospital, the 18-year-old relies on the pilots for transportation. They are “so sweet,” she said. “They don’t treat you like you are a patient, they treat you like you are a person.”

The service is arranged through the hospitals and provided only to patients with severe medical conditions — cancer, in many cases — who can’t afford the flights, said Christian Holtz, who coordinates about 90 volunteer pilots in Western Washington. “The idea is to reduce the stress for the patients and get them to their appointments on time.”

Schaper, who is 73 and lives on Lower Queen Anne, isn’t only donating his time for the missions. He also picks up the tab, as all the pilots are expected to do. This particular mission, to take Lorenzo back to Albany, cost him $580 for rental of the airplane and fuel.

Despite his modest income as a retired social worker, Schaper said his money is well spent. “It is expensive, but it’s a positive thing as far as I’m concerned.” After almost 5 decades piloting single-engine aircraft, he said, these missions are “the most satisfying flying I’ve ever done.”

Following a long day of tests at Children’s, Lorenzo was tired and looking forward to getting back home in less than two hours. She couldn’t begin to imagine making the 500-mile round trip by car and having to spend a night in a hotel. The flights are a “huge service to the patients and their families,” said Lorenzo. “I don’t know what I would do if I could not use them.”

During the trip to Albany Schaper was accompanied by his pilot friend Ed Bryce, 60, a retired software tester who has also been flying recreationally for decades. I made this sketch while they were getting the rented Cessna 172 Skyhawk ready at Boeing Field.

On the flight back to Seattle, Schaper veered from his planned itinerary to avoid some patches of rain pouring from clouds lingering over us. Sunlight filtered down intermittently, creating rainbows over the mountains. It was a beautiful scene to end a beautiful mission.

Schaper keeps meticulous track of his flying experience in logbooks going back to 1961. His count the day I met him: 5,136 flights.