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These angels are ready for emergency flights on a moment’s notice

For patients who must travel across the state or across the country for medical treatments or surgery, taking to the highway may not be the best or even a viable option. That’s where Angel Flight and pilots like Randy Rolf, Don Lindell and Michael Smith come in.

The trio of local men – retirees Rolf and Lindell who live on the barrier island and Smith who lives in Sebastian and works at Indian River Medical Center – make a difference by helping people and supplies get to their destinations.

“I’ve had people who I’ve flown say to me, ‘You really are an angel’,” the 77-year-old Lindell chuckled, adding that his wife Barbara takes issue with that characterization of her husband.

Angels or not, the volunteer pilots provide a great service for sick people in need, and sometimes their actions are downright inspiring. In fact, Smith got started in Angel Flight because of Lindell and other Command Pilots, as the 47-year-old was once on the receiving end of a very important Angel Flight.

“I got a call at about 8 a.m. from Angel Flight asking if I was available immediately for a flight, they said we had to get a patient to Gainesville for an organ transplant,” Lindell said.

Smith was on the list to receive a kidney-pancreas transplant at Shands Hospital in Gainesville and on Nov. 16, 2005 they’d found what they thought were compatible organs and needed him to get there within a few hours. A type one diabetic, Smith had been on dialysis and his health was rapidly failing.

Lindell, who has 43 years of flight experience and more than 6,000 hours in the air, accepted the “mission,” as the flights are called. All the pilots who had committed to fly Smith were already out on missions and Lindell agreed to take the last minute assignment.

He met Smith and his mother, Nancy Cran, who is retired from the John’s Island Club catering department, at the Vero Beach Municipal Airport and took off for Gainesville. Smith’s antigen tests showed that the surgery was “a go” and he had the transplant at 7 p.m. that evening. Never having flown a transplant patient before, Lindell was curious how it all turned out.

“I called the next day and they put me through to Michael’s room and I talked to him,” he said. “He kept telling me how I had saved his life. I told him that all I did was get him there, it was the doctors and nurses who saved his life.”

After his new organs enabled him to resume an active life, Smith began volunteering with Angel flight while taking flying lessons. He has been working as an Earth Angel – meaning a ground support person – and as a pilot flying supplies for booths at festivals and flying around the state making speeches about Angel Flight.

Very soon, when he gets a few more flight hours under his belt to meet the 250 Pilot in Command hours required, Smith will be authorized to transport patients. He rents time in a Piper Cherokee PA-28 at the Vero Beach Airport.

“I can’t wait until I fly my first mission with a patient,” Smith said. “It’s like that movie, ‘Pay it Forward’ and I don’t need any recognition because I love doing it.”

Lindell said flying patients like Smith really opened his eyes to the plight of people with chronic diseases and to the need for safe, quick transportation to medical facilities. Lindell is a retired educator who also worked for the New York State Education Department prior to moving to Vero’s barrier island full time in 1993 and signing on with Angel Flight.

Lindell recently gave up missions when he sold his plane. His years with Angel Flight have given Lindell memories of flying young and old to destinations all over the southeastern United States.

“The youngest was a baby who I flew to Miami to have treatments on its head because it was born with an elongated shape. I didn’t even know they could do that,” he said. “And the oldest was a blind veteran that I flew to the Veterans Administration hospital.”

Randy Rolf, a John’s Island resident who moved to Vero Beach from Missouri where he ran a multi-national industrial uniform business, got his pilot license when he was 22 years old in 1964 through the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Missouri. Rolf doesn’t remember how he first heard about Angel Flight, but he said the organization takes out ads in flight magazines and does booths at air shows, so he’s known it existed for a long time.

He finally signed up in 2001 after he and his wife, Sandy, retired and moved to Vero Beach full time in 1999.

Rolf said the program is widely known and respected in the aviation world and that most airports give Angel Flight pilots a break on fuel because they know they’re donating their time and their planes for a good cause. A trip back and forth to Tampa costs Rolf about $200 in fuel, but the missions keep him up in the air so his skills stay sharp and they keep his plane in the air more and in the hangar less.

For those who do not have airplanes but still want to help, Angel Flight accepts donations, which pay for the operation of the headquarters and go to what they call a Rainy Day Fund, out of which Angel Flight purchases commercial airline tickets for patients when weather conditions will not permit its pilots and their small craft to safely fly.

More pilots are always needed and, Rolf said, an increased demand for missions through awareness in the Vero Beach area might create the excitement needed to get more Command Pilots on board.

“Part of the issue is that we don’t have a lot of missions in close proximity to Vero,” he said. “By the number of planes that there are at the Vero Beach airport, there are definitely people here who could do this.”

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