Chances are that when most Ventura County residents think of Camarillo and Oxnard Airports, they think of current operations made up of mostly flight training, private jets, and businesses including Golden West Jet Center, Aspen Helicopters, Cloud Nine and the Waypoint Café just to name a few. Mixed in are likely memories of when Camarillo Airport was an Air Force base through the 1960s, or when Oxnard Airport’s terminal was bustling with commercial travelers. There are likely even memories of the critical part Oxnard Airport played for the Army Air Corps and Navy during World War II.
What many arguably don’t know is that the role of both airports extends well beyond traditional operations and into the realm of national non-profit organizations that focus on environmental conservation, life-changing flights to medical appointments, and animal rescue and sheltering – all made possible by locally based pilots who volunteer their time, fuel, and planes to conduct missions aimed at making a difference.
Among those pilots is Al Cossey, a Ventura County resident based at Camarillo Airport. Cossey is one of 348 active command pilots for the California-South Wing of Angel Flight West, a non-profit organization based out of Santa Monica Airport. Over the last 40 years, Angel Flight West has provided safe and accessible transportation to more than 20,000 individuals needing assistance to and from medical appointments and other destinations at no charge. The organization was originally established by volunteer pilots looking for a way to give back. Initially recognized as the American Medical Support Flight Team, the organization merged with Angel Flight, a nationally based non-profit, and has completed 3,600 missions this year alone. This month, the organization will mark is 100,000th flight since its inception in the 1980s.
“There are 12 separate wings and of the 12 wings, the California-South Wing is the largest and most active,” Cossey said. “We might be based in Southern California, but we will fly anywhere that is needed.”
Made up of volunteer pilots, Angel Flight focuses its work on ambulatory patients with no other means of transportation to medical appointments, including surgeries, chemotherapy, burn care, and transplants. There are missions for children with severe burn scars headed to summer camps with other kids who have been through the same trauma. It’s a place they feel safe, Cossey said. And there are missions with urgent blood donations. The scope of work is nearly endless.
“It was developed to fill a need,” Cossey said. “All pilots are volunteers who believe wholeheartedly in the purpose of every mission. The original founders credited the decision to not reimburse volunteer pilots for expenses as a major contributor to assuring that those joining the organization did it for the right reason – to serve.”
Cossey added that missions were initially based on requests from hospital administrators or medical professionals, a requirement that has changed over time. Individual patients may now request their own flights, but medical documentation is still required to verify the need. Once scheduled, a volunteer known as a “Ground Angel” picks the client up from their home to take them to their destination airport. A volunteer “Command Pilot” then flies them to their requested airport where a second “Ground Angel” picks them up to take them to their appointment.
What happens when weather is a problem or pilots aren’t available? Angel Flight West has an established partnership with Alaskan and Southwest Airlines and tickets are available for those in need. Additionally, if a “Ground Angel” isn’t available, Angel Flight schedules and pays for ground transportation such as Uber or Lyft to and from the airport.
Cossey flies a handful of missions monthly in his Cessna 182 and noted that “Many pilots fly repeated missions with the same patients and get to know them well. There is an established rapport, and when we receive updates on clients, including those who have passed, well, it hits us hard and reminds us why we’re there.”
He continued, “You’re saving lives – human lives. And I can’t think of anything more meaningful than that.”
For more information or to learn how to get involved, visit angelflightwest.org.