'Angel' pilot delivers people, supplies


Colleen Slater, KP News

Take a beautiful, clear summer day, an experienced pilot, and a ’77 Cessna 180, and one thinks of someone out for fun.

Flying is fun for Tom Howard of Vaughn. He and wife, Nancy, fly to remote Idaho for a camping trip, or to California to visit her family.

At 19, Howard joined the Navy and became a fighter pilot, flying to and from an aircraft carrier in Vietnam.

“I made 110 takeoffs,” he says. “I got a few holes (in the plane).” But he never had to parachute out.

After five years of that, he flew commercial airplanes for American Airlines for 35 years. When he realized retirement could mean no more flying, he became involved in smaller planes, first with a friend, and eventually in his own plane.

About five years ago, he joined Angel Flight West, an organization of volunteers who donate their time to assist people in medical need. People who cannot afford commercial transportation, or for health reasons cannot use it, are transported to and from hospitals.

Some flights are made for other compelling reasons.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, when commercial air traffic was grounded and airports were closed, Angel Flight volunteers were allowed to fly. Firefighters, families of victims, Red Cross personnel, medical supplies were all carried by Angel pilots. Protective booties for search and rescue dogs were among the supplies.

Angel Flight West serves 11 Western states plus Alaska and Hawaii. More than 1,600 members fly nearly 3,000 flights each year. It is part of a nationwide organization, Angel Flight America, which has become the largest charitable air carrier in the country. Ground volunteers, called Earth Angels, coordinators, donors and the media contribute support as well as the pilots who give of their time and airplanes.

Pilots check the needed flights in their area, and sign up for those they are willing and able to do.

Howard has done several flights while visiting in California. Nancy often accompanies him as assistant. He does most of his in the summer, as his plane is not equipped for de-icing, and safety is a paramount concern.

On a perfect flying day in June, Howard boards his plane at the Bremerton National Airport, straps on his kneepad that has a checklist, and goes through the steps — check the weather, carburetor heat, ignition, prop control, radios, GPS, lock doors, lock seats. Instruments are free. He’s set for take-off.

Bremerton has no tower, so each pilot announces his departure on the radio for others in the vicinity.

A short hop to the Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor to pick up his passenger, and they’re off to fly south to Pearson Airport in Vancouver, Wash.

The mountains are out: Rainier, Adams, St. Helens, Hood, Jefferson, and, nearly back home, Baker.

Flying along the western Key Peninsula coastline, he revs the engine to let certain friends and his wife know it’s his plane over their heads.

Mission accomplished for Angel Flight, and Howard has enjoyed another beautiful day in the air.