Angel Flight East Kootenay has been celebrating a string of firsts since getting back into the air after COVID-19 restrictions loosened.
Angel Flight was forced to hit pause on flights in early March when the pandemic surged but since they’ve started re-offering their services, they’ve been quite busy. The charity, which offers free flights to medical appointments in Kelowna for residents of the East Kootenay, has officially done their first flights out of several Kootenay region airports.
“Soon we’ll run out of firsts because we’ve done almost everywhere in the East Kootenay now,” said Brent Bidston, lead pilot and president of Angel Flight.
The organization has now run flights out of Creston, Nelson and Invermere, all firsts since Angel Flight began operating in April 2019. They also ran their first flight out of Sparwood with their new, community funded aircraft.
“Before we shut down for COVID we were averaging 2.2 patients a month,” Bidston said. “Since we reopened, we’ve seen a 350 per cent increase in our requests and flights.”
Now, Angel Flight is averaging seven or eight patients a month. While this is great news for Angel Flight and for the people using their services, Bidston noted that they’ve seen an uptick in flights while also seeing a downturn in funding.
Since Angel Flight relies partially on donations from community groups and community groups often rely on events for fundraising, COVID-19 has affected the organization’s income stream.
“Completely understandable but slightly concerning. Obviously our costs have gone up because we’re carrying more people but then our costs have also come down because we have a cheaper airplane to operate,” Bidston explained.
Although donations aren’t flowing in as readily as they did before, several local businesses are stepping up to support the charity. Fernie’s Independent Grocer is running a month-long fundraising campaign for Angel Flight and several stores throughout other East Kootenay towns are doing the same.
Anyone interested in donating directly to Angel Flight, or in booking a flight, can visit their website at Angelflightek.ca.
Although Angel Flight and its string of recent firsts has no doubt been keeping Bidston busy this summer, so has Elk Valley Air Search and Rescue.
The community-funded Cessna 182 is used both for Angel Flight and for search and rescue purposes and for the first time ever, the new plane went out on a search and rescue call.
On July 16, Bidston was contacted regarding a vehicle search. A few days later on July 22, he was called out again for a second vehicle search. According to the pilot, this is the first time Air Search and Rescue has ever received two calls in one week. Although unable to attend the call on July 22, the crew did respond to the call on July 16.
The RCMP requested an aerial search of the land on both sides of Lake Koocanusa to help in locating a missing vehicle.
“We did a really thorough three hour search but we actually never saw anything because apparently the guy we were looking for had in fact never left Alberta, which makes it tough,” Bidston said. The vehicle was later found in a completely different area.
Despite this, Bidston said the flight was a success, calling the new plane the most capable aircraft they’ve had.
“The new aircraft operated well and shows that we are now in a sustainable position to provide aerial assistance in any emergency situation,” he said.
With a busy summer ahead for both Bidston and the Cessna 182, Elk Valley residents are sure to see the plane cruising through the skies in the near future.