Pilots Sarah Fehr and Douglas Noblet stand near the plane they used to take a woman from Nelson to Kelowna for a medical appointment. The round trip Thursday was the first offered out of Nelson’s airport by Angel Flight East Kootenay. Photo: Tyler Harper

Two wings and no prayers required: Angel Flight East Kootenay begins trips from Nelson

Charity offers free flights from Nelson to Kelowna for passengers with medical needs

It was an August weekend evening when Brent Bidston’s phone rang.

A baby had been born in Cranbrook, and health complications meant he needed to be immediately flown to a Kelowna hospital. But the air ambulance was small, with just space for the mother.

The father, who would have to stay behind, called Bidston.

Bidston, a retired pilot, former paramedic and founder of Angel Flight East Kootenay, offered to help. The next morning Bidston, his partner Todd Weselake and the father touched down in Kelowna.

“We actually had him at his baby’s bedside before his wife,” said Bidston. “She was still in Cranbrook waiting for her own air ambulance.”

Angel Flight East Kootenay, which offers free non-emergency flights to Kelowna for people in need of medical transport, began operating in April 2019. The charity relies on volunteer pilots and their planes while using donations to cover fuel costs.

Previously Angel Flight had only flown out of Cranbrook, but earlier this month had its first flight from Creston. On Thursday, the team started offering service out of Nelson to Kelowna.

Pilots Douglas Noblet and Sarah Fehr were in the cockpit for Thursday’s flight. Noblet, 28, has been flying since he was 15, and volunteering with Nelson Search and Rescue for nearly a decade.

Flying is its own reward for Noblet, but he was happy to help a Nelson woman who needed to be in Kelowna for only a 30-minute appointment.

“If it gives free flights for patients who need to go, they love it, it’s great for them,” said Noblet.

Bidston said some of his passengers are hustled off to hospital by air and then have no idea how to return home once discharged.

“Just yesterday we brought a gentleman back from Kelowna who had been taken by air ambulance, and he didn’t even have his cell phone with him.”

But not just anyone can call up Angel Flight for a ride.

Passengers need a doctor’s approval to fly in an unpressurized plane and proof of a medical appointment. Anyone with a communicable disease can’t fly, and there’s no medical assistance available in the air.

Travellers also have to be able to walk on their own power to the plane — there’s no room for wheelchairs in small Cessna 182s, after all.

Pilots also need their own plane and extensive experience to volunteer. Angel Flight requires a private pilot licence and 500 hours in the air.

Bidston said he’s already received interest in volunteering from Nelson pilots. Noblet’s flight Thursday was Angel Flight’s 50th since it began operating, and he expects plenty more to come.

Anyone interested in using Angel Flight’s services, making a donation or volunteering to be a pilot can find out more at angelflightek.ca.

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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