The private plane glided over Casper through a cloudless cerulean sky Wednesday morning. Volunteer pilot Tom Van Kleef landed the Cessna 414 aircraft, which carried a 15-year-old patient and his mother, safely onto the runway at 10:06 a.m.
The charity Angel Flight West coordinated the flight to bring patient Orion Davis-Lower from his home in Montana to Colorado for heart surgery. Another pilot waited on the runway at the Atlantic Aviation fixed-base operator hangar in Casper, ready to complete the last leg of the patient’s journey to the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Colorado.
“It’s kind of a relay,” Van Kleef said.
After Davis-Lower’s heart surgery in Colorado, the same pair of pilots will bring him and his mother, Crystal Lower, back to Bigfork, Montana. This is the teenager’s second heart surgery.
Angel Flight West connects volunteer pilots across the West with patients in need of transportation to medical facilities for specialty treatments. The organization covers the full cost of the flight through donations, meaning patients do not have to bear the burden of costly air transport. Pilot Van Kleef is determined to see the number of missions originating in Wyoming grow. It’s a state he says is “tailor-made” for Angel Flight West’s missions.
As of now, not many flights originate from Wyoming. But the Equality State’s plethora of small, rural towns make transporting patients in need of intensive procedures or ongoing medical care a challenge. The veteran pilot is eager to spread the word about the service across Wyoming. He wants to see Angel Flight West become a fixture in the community here, helping those in need.
“We got involved because it was just a way to give back,” Van Kleef said. “Pilots like to fly, and you’re always looking for a good reason to fly, and I can’t think of a better reason to fly.”
The impact of the service Van Kleef and other volunteer pilots can’t be understated.
Some patients have compromised immune systems and don’t have the luxury of flying commercially. Driving in a car often takes too long. With a private plane, the patient can arrive at a hospital or clinic in a matter of hours, and family members can often come along, too.
Van Kleef flew as a pilot in the military for 25 years. Now he and his wife, Julie Martinez, own a small, independent company called Oil Mountain Energy in Wyoming.
“We quite literally are the definition of a small, ‘mom and pop’ company,” Van Kleef said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused oil prices to nosedive earlier this year, the couple shut in their oil wells. Though the last few months haven’t been easy, they’re relieved they have found a purpose in carrying out the missions of Angel Flight West.
On Sunday, Van Kleef and Martinez have another mission on deck. They will be flying a 9-year-old boy with cancer in need of extensive bone marrow transplants.
“There is a lot of opportunity to really support people in need,” Van Kleef said, “and as an aircraft owner as a pilot, it’s the right thing to do.”