To save fuel, volunteer pilot Bill Davidson now packs more than one sick passenger onto his shiny six-seat Piper Malibu airplane when he makes a hospital run.
So, on a recent afternoon flight from Houston back to Denton, 19-month-old Marisol Salas, who suffers from a nerve disorder called brachial plexus, sat across from Lenore Kinzenbaw, a 58-year-old woman with breast cancer. Both Marisol and Ms. Kinzenbaw had needed a flight to Houston hospitals for treatment. And Angel Flight - a free Addison-based transportation service provided by pilots flying their own planes and often buying the gas - was their most comfortable and affordable option.
High fuel prices, however, have made it more expensive for these pilots to fill up their planes, and Angel Flight's staff is worried it will lose the kindhearted services of pilots like Mr. Davidson.
It has already turned away 120 patients this year - one of the highest totals in the charity's 16-year history. Eleven patients had to be told "no" in June, the largest monthly number in recent memory, said Cindy Palmer, Angel Flight's director of events.
"You sure hate to call the mother of a cancer baby saying we can't give you a ride," Ms. Palmer said. For patients, these free flights can be the only alternative to either a crammed ride on a commercial flight - which might be hard for them to afford or even get to - or a long, uncomfortable ride in a car. Such trips can be especially difficult for small children and their moms or dads.
Some cancellations, of course, are due to weather. And some patients die before their scheduled flight.
But the vast majority of cancellations come because the organization can't find a pilot to fly, said Shireen Pitassi, Angel Flight's lead mission coordinator. And those are becoming more common.
"I feel that a lot of them are having issues with the cost of fuel, but they're too proud to talk about it," Ms. Pitassi said.
That being said, these pilots are hardly poor; some have seven-figure incomes, Ms. Palmer said. They fly because they can afford it.
"It's pretty expensive," Mr. Davidson, the 50-year-old owner of a commercial real estate firm in Lewisville, said of his volunteer assignments. "But flying already is an expensive habit."
More expensive than a landlubber cruising in his Lexus might think. Many small planes use a high-octane fuel called Avgas, an industry word derived from "aviation gasoline." Avgas grades are distinguished by their high octane rating - an indication of how quickly the fuel burns. Airplanes need the more expensive higher-octane gas because it burns slower and more controlled.
For his Continental 550 engine with its twin turbo charger, Mr. Davidson uses Avgas 100 LL - translation: 100-octane gas with low lead.
The First Air gas station in Addison sells Avgas 100 LL for $6.15 a gallon. (And you thought $3 gas was bad.) A year ago, that aviation grade fluctuated between $3 and $4 a gallon.
It takes 140 gallons to fill up Mr. Davidson's tank, at a cost of more than $800.
Then he flies 250 miles an hour and burns, on average, 20 gallons an hour. That's more than $120 out of his pocket for each hour in the air.
"My fuel economy is much like that of a large SUV," working out to the equivalent of 12 to 13 miles per gallon, Mr. Davidson said. "I'm just much faster."
The volunteer pilots used to get discounts when filling up their planes, a courtesy many gas stations extended because of the nature of the pilots' missions.
But higher prices have ended many of those pricing breaks, Mr. Davidson said and First Air employee confirmed.
So, Mr. Davidson now turns what used to be three short trips into one six-hour, 1,000-mile run. That saves on the gas needed for taking off and climbing to higher altitudes.
Of course, it also adds to the time involved for the patients loading up and means a more crowded plane.
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