Some 300 times since obtaining his pilot’s license in the mid-1990s, Loudoun native Steve Craven has transported children, veterans and others in his six-seat Piper aircraft to medical facilities, where they need specialized treatment but can’t afford to get there on their own.
Craven is one of several hundred pilots on the East Coast who perform such volunteer missions through the nonprofit charity Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic.
Angel Flight is available to children or adult patients — and their escorts — needing transportation for medical evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. Patients must be ambulatory, which means they must be able to walk, enter and exit the plane with little to no assistance, and require no medical care en route.
Angel Flight will also fly persons with a compassionate need on a case-by-case basis. Overall, there must be a financial or compelling necessity for the flight falling under the group’s mission statement — to ensure that no one in need is denied medical care because of a lack of transportation.
In 1996, Craven attended McLean Bible Church, whose members included retired Air Force Major Gen. Click Smith Jr. One of the early pilots and organizers of Mercy Medical Airlift, a non-profit similar to Angel Flight, Gen. Smith heard Craven obtained a private pilot certificate and wrote a letter “ordering me to report for duty” as a volunteer pilot, Craven said.
By that time, Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic organized into an operational group for Virginia and some adjacent states. Craven was inspired by Gen. Smith’s request and chose to work with Mercy and the newly formed Angel Flight.
Over time, Craven’s dedication to help others and passion for flying, combined with the desire to grow Angel Flight, has been recognized in his appointment as president and later as chairman of Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic. The organization has grown to transport nearly 100 patients monthly and a pool of 450 volunteer pilots. Nationwide, some 4,000 volunteer pilots participate in similar “Angel Flight” programs.
One of the more notable flights for Craven was a 12-year-old girl who was badly burned in a house fire from Manassas. Craven flew the girl to Shriners Hospital in Boston for special treatment.
“The girl was so badly burned, it was heartbreaking and hard to fathom placing myself in her place. It was amazing how much gratitude and joy came from this little girl and her mother — that we would fly them to Shriners,” said Craven.
Craven has taken many other children in need from their hometowns to treatment facilities and hospitals such as Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati, National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
That said, the flights are not just one way. Once the testing, operation or recovery is over, the patient and family still have to get back home. Often pilots will wait, stay overnight or return home and come back once the patient is ready and able to travel again.
Compassion flights are also part of the overall process. “To just take a patient and drop them off at a medical center — could you imagine going through that alone without your family, friend or someone to help you through?” said Craven.
Angel Flight also participates with the Homeland Security Emergency Air Transportation System, by flying high-priority personnel and small cargo to hurricane-ravaged areas.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Craven flew a disaster team to Mobile, Ala., and delivered medical supplies and other relief to people affected by the devastation. He also transported a 15-year-old girl from a Louisiana shelter to Knoxville, Tenn., to join her resettled family and helped other Katrina victims resettle in Cincinnati and North Carolina. In addition, he has aided tornado victims in Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee.
Incredibly, Craven does this at no cost to the passenger or their family.
While Angel Flight, a non-profit, acts as the organizer and coordinating service to match volunteer pilots willing to donate their time and aircraft to serve the needy, pilots bear the cost of the flights.
Unlike a car, not only is there the immediate cost of fuel at some $5.50 per gallon and landing/parking fees at the airports, pilots who own their planes, like Craven, also cover additional fixed and variable costs, including insurance, hanger fees and FAA-regulated maintenance. Ultimately, for a six-seat single engine plane like Craven’s, it costs the pilot/owner $150 to $200 per flight hour.
“I’ve been blessed in my life,” Craven said. “I believe it’s important to give back.”
Craven, who lives in Paeonian Springs, was the long-time owner/operator of Craven Tire & Auto, a well-known seven-outlet tire and repair dealership based in Fairfax.
Even with his dealerships, Craven’s deep Christian faith and involvement with local churches would lead to referrals of needy people, such as single moms, to have service work done on their vehicles.
“We maintain[ed] a budget to help broken families with children who’ve been referred to us by their church,” Randy Mills, former director of operations for Craven’s dealerships, said in a previous interview. “We repair their vehicles, charging from zero to whatever they can afford.”
Prior to selling the business in 2007, Mills said Craven spent about half his time on organizations and charities outside the business. Angel Flight became a passion for Craven.
“It’s an incredibly rewarding program,” Craven said. “Many patients live in rural areas and are in dire need of getting to a hospital that can properly treat them… It’s all about using general aviation to help people.”
Angel Flight is “always looking for pilots who want to help,” said Craven. Potential volunteer pilots must go through a short application process, be insured and meet certain pilot qualifications requirements.
While there is typically an age limitation to become a Pilot in Command, one of Angel Flight’s pilots, John Billings, still commands missions at age 94 with his trusted co-pilot, Nevin Showman. A World War II bomber pilot and later commercial airline pilot, Billings of Woodstock, Va., is in great shape, Craven said.
“He is quite an inspiration to us all,” he said.
Though pilots fund their flights, coordinating efforts and flights takes a great deal of time and manpower. The organization itself raises funds to meet its needs in various ways.
Donations are necessary and fundraising events are constantly held as the budget to run Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic’s coordination efforts is well over $2 million per year. The non-profit strives to ensure that 97 cents of every dollar donated and raised goes directly to one of the patient services. Of the remaining three cents, one cent pays administrative salaries and overhead, while the other two cents covers fundraising efforts.
“It takes a huge coordinated effort to make all of this happen, but it’s well worth every moment,” said Craven.
The pilots themselves are typically humble and private about their own donations, yet Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic estimates that pilots donated more than $2 million in 2017 alone for transportation of patients and families.
Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic can be reached at 757-318-9174.