Volunteer pilot Tom Mellett took this mom, Julie Keeton, and her infant daughter, Ellie, on a flight to Julie’s home in Tennessee while another of Julie’s children was getting emergency medical care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

by Len Lear

“When I turned 35 in 1992, I wasn’t getting any better at golf, probably because my head was in the air the whole game watching planes fly by,” said Tom Mellett last week. “I figured I better get another hobby. As a kid of the 1960s, the space program and all things aviation were pretty exciting. I like to figure out how things work and thought there would be a lot to learn by training to become a pilot. So I got my pilot’s license in about 10 months and went on to get my instrument rating two years later.”

Tom, 60, who grew up in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, is an instrument-rated pilot now, which requires approximately 200 hours of study and hands-on training, and is therefore now qualified to fly in any kind of weather.

Over 40 years ago Tom graduated from Cardinal Dougherty High School, but “I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and never considered college. I just didn’t like school.”

In the winter of 1970 Tom sold Christmas trees, but outside of that job, Tom has always been in the auto business. For the last 29 years he has been selling and renting cars, trucks and vans as the owner of U-Save Car & Truck Rental in Glenside. Seven years ago he opened a second location in Fort Washington, and prior to 1988 he was a service manager for 12 years for a new car dealership that had a car rental franchise on-site. “The people were lined up at the rental desk all day long,” he said.

“We signed up with U-Save Car & Truck Rental to add stability to our used car dealership. Since day one, the rental business has dominated our operation. We even had to move our sales operation down the street due to the enormous growth experienced by our auto rental business.”

But as indicated earlier, Tom also became a pilot, having trained at Wings Field in Blue Bell in 1992. And when he learned about an acclaimed humanitarian program, Angel Flight East (AFE), which is based at Wings Field, he decided to become a volunteer pilot for them, starting in 2003.

The mission of AFE is to provide free air transportation to qualified patients and their families by arranging flights to distant medical facilities, delivering supplies to disaster areas and reuniting families during desperate times.

AFE is Pennsylvania’s first and largest provider of free air transportation for medically needy patients. Harry Morales, a general aviation pilot, founded Angel Flight East in 1992 to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew. In 1993, the first year of operations, AFE’s small band of new volunteer pilots flew 17 flights. Today, they fly 700 to 800 flights each year in the Northeastern U.S.

Mellett flies at least twice a year as a volunteer for AFE. “Obviously, helping people in need is the biggest reward,” said Tom. “I feel I get so much more out of it than the passengers do. In addition, it helps justify owning an airplane.”

The farthest he has flown as an AFE volunteer was to Portland, Maine, and Indiana. What were the most unusual, compelling or dramatic cases Tom can recall? “One of my favorites was flying a mother and her newborn baby back to Tennessee so the baby’s father and her four other siblings were able to meet the new addition to the family. The mother gave birth while staying at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) with her terminally ill son.

“But with the joyous flights come the sad ones. Recently another AFE pilot and I flew an infant’s remains that passed away at CHOP back to the family in Clarksville, West Virginia. I can’t begin to tell you how sad that was, but I like to think that the family felt better going through  AFE vs. a commercial option. The flight was coordinated by another fantastic outfit, http://www.finalfarewell.org/home

“Many of these passengers have kept in touch and express their appreciation well after the flight. It sure makes it all worthwhile when you hear from them and thankful that you could help them in their time of need.”

When he is not flying planes or selling and renting cars, Tom likes to attend car auctions and travel. He and his wife, Kathleen, who have lived in Ambler for 20 years, have been to Ireland more times then they have been to the Poconos.

In addition to flying two-legged patients as a volunteer to much-needed medical treatment, Tom recently signed up to fly with Pilot N Paws, which transports rescue animals to cities where they have a chance to be adopted into loving homes (http://www.pilotsnpaws.org/)

For more information, visit angelflighteast.org