Molly Schenkenberger (middle) and her mom, Colleen, of Breiningsville, PA, are seen with AFE volunteer pilot Frank Becker on July 20 of this year before a flight to Ohio so that Molly could receive treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for high complex acute spina bifida.

Molly Schenkenberger (middle) and her mom, Colleen, of Breiningsville, PA, are seen with AFE volunteer pilot Frank Becker on July 20 of this year before a flight to Ohio so that Molly could receive treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for high complex acute spina bifida.

by Len Lear

• To become a good pilot requires a good altitude.

• During his air test a young pilot flew through a rainbow. He passed with flying colors.

• Some planes are so cramped that passengers suffer jet leg.

These lines would probably be appreciated by the real-life “Angel” pilots from Angel Flight East in Blue Bell who literally save the lives of children and adults who desperately need medical care.

For example, in 2009, at two weeks old, Brayden Bateman was diagnosed with a rare case of eye cancer. Only about 300 children each year in America are diagnosed with retinoblastoma (RB), the condition with which Bateman was afflicted. (Retinoblastoma is a malignant tumor caused by immature baby cells in the retina, a thin layer of nerve tissue that coats the back of the eye and enables the eyes to see.)

To care for her baby, her third, Sabra Bateman was forced to take unpaid leave from work. Her husband Jason was a self-employed insurance agent. Jason, who had lost an eye himself to RB as an infant, knew that if he did not work, he would not be paid.

These conditions stressed the family’s resources. The family lived in Greenville, South Carolina, but the medical help they needed, some of the best medical help they could get in the country, was a 10-plus hour drive away in Philadelphia at the Wills Eye (America’s first) Hospital.

“He didn’t have to say cancer,” said Bateman’s mother about her reaction when the doctor told her Brayden’s condition at her first appointment with a pediatric eye surgeon. “He didn’t have to say retinoblastoma. I knew Brayden had cancer.”

Mrs. Bateman’s doctor told her the best chances the family had of saving Brayden’s left eye, which had an 11-millimeter tumor, was to see Dr. Carol Shields at Wills, one of the nation’s leading physicians in treating eye cancer.

“There is no way I could have done it myself,” said Bateman. The driving and the costs were too much. That’s when Angel Flight East (AFE) spread its proverbial wings. But unlike the phoenix, AFE flies beautiful flight after beautiful flight.

“The first time I called them, they just took over,” said Bateman in an earlier interview about the people at AFE, with whom she was connected by a social worker at Wills. (Brayden did have surgery at Wills Eye Hospital and also received care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.)

Founded in 1992, AFE is a Blue Bell-based nonprofit organization that coordinates and facilitates free flights between patients and volunteer pilots, who incur the cost of travel themselves.

The group first organized in response to emergency needs for Hurricane Andrew and has since grown to include a dedicated network of more than 350 pilots, 100 ground volunteers and a small staff. During its first year, pilots flew 17 missions. Today, pilots fly hundreds of missions for patients in many states.

AFE operates out of Wings Field in Blue Bell and connects patients and pilots in the eastern region of the U.S. If patients need care beyond that, its staff works to connect patients with similar organizations in the desired destination area. To fly, patients must be able to board an aircraft and fly in a single- or twin-engine aircraft. Volunteer pilots use their own private planes for the trips.

Sabra and Brayden Bateman are seen with volunteer pilot Robert Collins, of Angel Flight East in Blue Bell, on one of many “Angel Flights” the Bateman family has received because of Brayden’s rare case of eye cancer.

Sabra and Brayden Bateman are seen with volunteer pilot Robert Collins, of Angel Flight East in Blue Bell, on one of many “Angel Flights” the Bateman family has received because of Brayden’s rare case of eye cancer.

To help provide the desperately needed funds for AFE’s life-saving trips, “An Elegant Evening of Wine & Song” in collaboration with another local nonprofit, Gaudeamus Music Ministry, will be held on Saturday, Oct. 15, 7 p.m., at Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School. Guests will enjoy premium wines along with a selection of hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction. The Gaudeamus ensemble will then perform a short concert featuring inspirational and light classical music, followed by coffee and dessert.

(Gaudeamus is a Christian faith-based ensemble of professional musicians. Proceeds from their concert performances and recordings are directed to organizations supporting the needy, with primary focus on children’s medical needs and education.)

For the Bateman family, AFE took the anxieties, and not just the economic worry, out of their problem of traveling to Philadelphia. “The pilots absolutely became like family to us,” Mrs. Bateman once told us, adding that there were only three times when a flight could not be arranged, one being a snowstorm that blanketed the city with two-and-a-half-feet of snow.

In another case, according to Jess Ames, Programs and Events Coordinator for AFE, “Molly Schenkenberger was diagnosed with anal-rectal malformation/high complex acute spina bifida. Her family was faced with many difficult decisions, one of them being how to get Molly to and from her lifesaving medical treatments at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital from Allentown. AFE immediately stepped in to fill that gap. Molly received her wings in November, 2010, aboard her first flight with AFE pilot, Frank Becker.

“From the first time Frank flew Molly and her family, he knew he wanted to fly them every time he could. What is normally a two-leg flight, Frank turned into one by flying the whole way. Not only does he volunteer his time and aircraft to help Molly get to her treatment, but he is also known to fly her back home after. Although Molly still requires ongoing treatments at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Frank is still her favorite angel.”

For more information about AFE, call 215-358-1900 or visit www.angelflighteast.org.

...