Bob Hunter with his Dakota Piper at Peterborough Municipal Airport.
NORTHUMBERLAND - Way up in the sky there’s a small team of pilots shuttling around some pretty important cargo.
They chauffeur medical patients – men, women and children – who need to travel great distances for treatment and don’t have the funds to pay for travel expenses.
One of those pilots is Baltimore resident Bob Hunter, a pilot since 1976.
He’s always loved flying, he said, even as a kid growing up near an airport.
“All I ever did was stand at the chain link fence and stare at the airplanes,” he said. “All I ever wanted was to be a commercial pilot.”
But it was a career path Hunter couldn’t pursue. Back then, he said, pilots were required to have uncorrected 20/20 vision and his eyesight fell short.
He pursued a career in the airline industry nonetheless, working in management and flying planes as a hobby.
About three or four years ago he heard about Hope Air and has been volunteering for the company ever since.
“It’s a chance to help out and do what I love doing,” he explained over a cup of coffee at the Peterborough Airport where he keeps his four-seater Dakota Piper.
Hope Air provides flights to help people access the health care they need.
Most of the time, the organization pays for seats for patients on commercial flights. But that doesn’t work in small communities, where residents don’t have easy access to an airport large enough to host a commercial airline.
That’s where pilots like Hunter step in. They fly to small, remote communities to either meet a patient heading to a hospital or to give someone a lift home.
Sharon, a 51-year-old Manitoulin Island resident who didn’t wish to give her full name, said she wouldn’t have any other way to attend her doctor’s appointment in Toronto without pilots like Hunter and the Hope Air service.
Sharon has severe rheumatoid arthritis that makes travelling difficult and has relied on Hope Air in the past.
“They are volunteer pilots. They are great. If it wasn’t for them, people wouldn’t be getting to these appointments,” Sharon said from her home in Gore Bay. “They are courteous. They are selfless. They go out of their way to help others which is great.”
Hunter transported Sharon from Gore Bay to Toronto Monday.
Hunter loves seeing the expression on a family’s face when they know they’ve been saved a costly, multi-hour bus trip across the province or the joy on a child’s face as they soar through the sky.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Hunter said, a smile crossing his face. “It is so neat.”
Hope Air covers 50% of Hunter’s fuel costs and the organization puts him in touch with patients. It’s up to Hunter and the patient to set up the date, time and location of the pickup.
Most are heading to Toronto, he said, to cancer treatment centres or The Hospital for Sick Children. Some like to talk about their treatments, while others don’t say a word. That’s up to them, Hunter said, and he makes a point not to ask.
Airports throughout the province accommodate pilots flying under the Hope Air call sign by waiving landing fees.
There’s no age limit for patients. Hope Air screens each applicant to make sure they meet medical and financial qualifications.
Peterborough resident Janet Feim credits Hope Air with the safe and quick reunification of her daughter’s family following the premature birth of her twin grandchildren in May.
Feim’s daughter Cheryl lives in Red Lake, a small community 570 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay with a population of about 5,000.
Cheryl was pregnant with twins. The community doctor told her she should relocate to a larger community as her due date neared. If anything were to go wrong, Red Lake’s small medical centre would be unable to handle the complication.
Cheryl chose to go to Toronto for care because family were close by in Peterborough. She began seeing a specialist at St. Michael’s Hospital and delivered the twins six weeks early.
Both babies — boys Keith Lee and Austin Kenneth — were healthy, though underweight. Feim said the Peterborough Regional Health Centre was able to accept the newborns as patients in their Special Care Nursery.
By June the family was able to return to Red Lake.
But it wasn’t going to be easy. Travelling with one healthy newborn can be challenging at the best of times. The Feims had a set of twins who weighed about five pounds each. They could take a 24-hour bus ride or endure 12 hours of travelling on a commercial flight.
Feim said Cheryl’s future mother-in-law suggested the couple apply to Hope Air. Their application was successful, and one month after the twins were born the two met their pilot at the Peterborough Airport.
Their trip home took only about five hours and Hope Air covered their expenses.
“I am amazed that we could reunite the family so quickly,” Feim said.
Story and photos: http://www.northumberlandtoday.com