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Pilots find satisfaction in donating their time

| Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Bridgeville-based pilots organization helps critically ill people fly a little easier during cloudy times in their lives.

The Volunteer Pilots Association is a nonprofit organization of 220 pilots who volunteer their time -- and planes -- to transport medical patients for treatment and organs for transplant.

"Where we shine is in the middle of the night, in out-of-the-way areas where there's no scheduled air service," said Kevin Sell, 50, of Bridgeville, who helped establish VPA in 1990.

Sell and six friends started the service because they wanted to put their pilots licenses to good use, Sell said. They had heard about volunteer missions from other pilots and decided to start a local service for medical patients.

The organization completed 65 missions in 2007, and already has fulfilled 50 requests this year, Sell said. One year, VPA flew about 300 missions, he said.

VPA typically operates within a 250-mile radius of Pittsburgh, but it partners with 26 similar organizations across the country when patients need to make longer trips. VPA pilots have flown as far away as Georgia to assist patients, Sell said.

All for free.

Those who have benefited from the service say it's invaluable.

Diane and Timothy Saxman of Butler asked VPA for help five years ago. Their son Timmy, 9, was born prematurely and weighed just 1 pound at birth. Medical problems that arose several years later required the family of four to commit to five-hour drives to a Cincinnati hospital. That lasted about a year until Diane Saxman, 37, read about VPA in a Make-A-Wish bulletin.

"It took less time to get there, and it saved us having to use our car," she said. "Plus, the cost to fly from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati would be well over a thousand dollars."

Dave Touretzky, 48, of West Mifflin, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been flying patients almost since VPA's beginning.

"I recently purchased a much more capable plane, and I like the idea of using the plane to help people," Touretzky said. "It's been quite an experience to talk to these people and hear their stories."

Touretzky once flew the Walker family of McKeesport to Philadelphia so that Levi Walker, 8, who was born with eye cancer, could receive treatment.

"As of right now we are not having to use them, but we also know that if we ever have to go back to Philadelphia, we know that we can call them and they will try to get us there," said Levi's mother, Pauline Parks, 46, of McKeesport.

The family had used Wings for Children, a similar organization based out of the Allegheny County Airport. But after the family grew to four, it could not longer use that organization, Parks said. That's when she called Volunteer Pilots, who could accommodate the larger family.

"They're wonderful to work with," she said. "They went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable, and all-in-all it was really a good experience."

There's a reason why each pilot tries to make every flight special, Sell said.

"This may have been the first time they've ever flown," Sell said. "And sometimes it is the last wonderful experience they have."

Volunteer Pilots Association

Phone: 412-221-1374



Eligibility guidelines:

• Complete a liability waiver

• Independent verification of need for treatment

• Patient must be able to sit upright and enter and exit the plane with little or no assistance

Donations: Can be made through the United Way of Allegheny County

Wings for Children

Phone: 412-469-9930 or 800-743-5527



Eligibility guidelines:

• Children younger than 18

• Must establish financial need

• Must be medically necessary

• Patient must be able to sit upright and enter and exit the plane with little or no assistance

Donations: Can be made through the United Way of Allegheny County

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