In 2023, 153 volunteer-piloted flights-for-a-cause were completed in Colorado through a nonprofit organization called Angel Flight West, according to the organization’s website. Those flights are included in the 101,249 flights that have been completed so far throughout Angel Flight West’s four decades of service.
Angel Flight West is a 501(c)3 that coordinates non-emergency air travel completely free of charge for passengers across the 12 Western states.
The free flight program primarily helps adults and children with serious medical conditions who need to travel to receive treatment and attend medical appointments far from home. Angel Flight West also arranges flight missions for non-medical needs, such as relocating victims of domestic violence, helping family members travel to visit critically ill or injured loved ones, transporting participants to specialty camps, and delivering supplies and support staff during natural disasters and public emergencies.
To qualify for flights, passengers must have financial needs or be unable to utilize public transportation because they live in a rural area or have a compromised immune system. Passengers are also required to be medically stable and able to board and exit the aircrafts independently.
The missions are made possible thanks to about 3,000 helpers that the organization calls “angels.” Both on the ground and in the skies, these volunteers work together on their own dime to get passengers where they need to go.
To begin the process, a health care provider or social worker refers a qualifying individual to the program. Then, Angel Flight West accepts and lists the mission request online for a pilot and driver to claim. The pilot flies the passenger and their companion(s) to an airport near the destination, and then a driver completes the last leg of the mission.
One of these angels is Joe Dowdy, who is part of the local community and operates out of Meadow Lake Airport.
Dowdy started flying airplanes when he was 17 years old. He served 20 years as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot before becoming a commercial pilot for FedEx. After he retired in 2014, he wasn’t ready to be bound to the ground, so he eventually took up flying “little airplanes” for fun. Before long, he registered to be a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight West.
“I look at it this way: I’ve been flying for such a long time, and I’m going to be flying anyway, so why don’t I do something good with it?” Dowdy said.
He started flying for the organization in his Beechcraft Bonanza A36 in 2017 and is on track to complete 100 missions for Angel Flight West by the end of 2024.
“I try to do at least 12 Angel Flight flights per year,” Dowdy said. “One per month … until one gets canceled so I do two the next month to make up for that … and then I pick up one more just in case the weather goes bad.”
His typical missions often involve flying from Meadow Lake Airport in Falcon to pick up passengers at smaller airports in mountain towns like Pagosa Springs, Durango or Grand Junction. He then flies the passengers to airports in larger towns, such as Centennial and Colorado Springs, near big-city hospitals and specialty clinics where they receive treatment they can’t get in their hometown. His longer-distance missions have landed him and his passengers in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico.
Vonda Dowdy, a retired U.S. Air Force nurse and Joe Dowdy’s wife of 40 years, is often her husband’s trusty sidekick for the missions. The couple has worked hard to ensure that each passenger’s experience is a personal one.
“It’s kind of our mission now. It feels wonderful,” Vonda Dowdy said. “All of our first-time passengers get one of these — an olive wood cross. It’s one of those that you hold and it calms you down. Christian Palestinians from Jerusalem make them, and we get them from our church, Black Forest Lutheran Church. It doesn’t matter what their beliefs are, the passengers all get one.”
Their passengers leave a lasting impression on them.
Joe Dowdy told the story of one of their most memorable Angel Flight West passengers.
“One time we were flying this little girl, and her legs were deformed from birth,” he said. “Children’s Hospital recommended amputation, but the parents found someone at Shriners Hospital in Salt Lake City who said they could work with them. We went to meet her at the airport — a little itty-bitty airport between the mountains — and I talked to her for a while, and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was maybe 5 years old and said, ‘I want to be a farmer because my grandpa was a farmer …then I want to be an astronaut … but just for a little while … because then I want to be a pilot.’”
Another one of the passengers is an ovarian cancer patient who has been a frequent flier with the couple since they started the missions. They’ve grown so close that they keep in touch and exchange Christmas cards each year.
“She’s in her third remission and she’s so good at it now that she’ll call me up and say, ‘Joe, I’ve been looking at the weather and it doesn’t look good to fly. I think I’ll just drive,’” Joe Dowdy said.
The nature of the flights and the mountainous terrain makes weather one of the biggest obstacles that the missions face. But Dave Elliott, manager of Meadow Lake Airport and also a registered Angel Flight West pilot, said, “They’re really good about anticipating and reacting to the pilots because of our terrain and weather. They understand that mountainous flying is not like regular flying over the prairie.”
Still, Joe Dowdy said that having to call a passenger and tell them he can’t fly is one of the most difficult parts of the job. Luckily, the Angel Flight West organization has a stellar reputation for swooping in with alternate plans when “plan A” goes awry due to weather or other reasons.
“Volunteers are the first line, but they have an operational fund so they’re not 100% dependent on us. Outside donors give millions of dollars for them to use to buy airline tickets for passengers if things go down,” Dowdy said.
Their network of other pilots also steps up to save the day when needed. On one occasion, Dowdy’s airplane had mechanical issues before take-off and they could no longer start the mission. Dowdy said, “It was noon and we called them up and within an hour they had another pilot come and the patient was able to make his appointment that day!”
“One of our campaigns that we’re on right now is trying to support the general aviation airports, the ‘little airports,’” Elliott said. “That’s what Angel Flight is really good at is … little airplanes to little airports and picking people up who don’t have access to airlines.”