Donald Lawton has been flying for Angel Flight South Central for more than 15 years and this month will undertake his 200th mission. Here we take a look back with Don on his experiences with passengers and on how Angel Flight has changed over the years.
What got you flying with Angel Flight?
It was probably a pretty typical reason, one that I’ve heard from many other pilots – it’s a way to give back.
Tell us about your first mission with Angel Flight South Central.
My first mission with Angel Flight was in February, 2002. I owned an Aviat A-1A Husky at the time (think 180 HP Super Cub – two-place, tandem-seating arrangement) so I had to be somewhat careful about selecting my passengers. Mainly, they had to be more than just “ambulatory” as it took a little climbing to get into the back seat. Even with that limitation, I flew 38 patients in the Husky over the next few years. The view from a Husky is better than the normal general aviation airplane, so it was always fun to see the enjoyment they had riding in it.
[Shown above: Don with his Aviat A-1A Husky in 2003, shortly after he began flying with AFSC.]
How has Angel Flight changed (and not changed) over the years?
I think the biggest change is the online AFIDS system which makes it much easier to find a mission that you can work into your schedule.
The biggest thing that hasn’t changed is the attitudes of the people I’ve met through the program. The hard work and helpfulness of the coordinators (and air traffic controllers), the flexibility of the connecting pilots, and the spirit and gratefulness of the patients are pretty much a constant. I can’t begin to imagine what the patients are going through with their treatments, but they almost universally have an upbeat attitude that makes each flight that much more enjoyable for me.
When I’m thanked for safely delivering a patient at the end of a mission leg, I always reply, “Any excuse to go flying.” I mean that, but the lifting of my spirit I get by sharing the sky with them means just as much to me.
Do you have any favorite stories from those 200 missions you've flown so far?
Without a doubt, the most memorable would be about a patient named Victor. I was helping him get buckled into my Husky for our first flight together, and I asked him if he’d ever ridden in a light airplane before. Victor said, “First ride in ANY kind of airplane.”
That was funny enough to be special, but what really brought it home to me is a flight I once gave to my father-in-law, Andy, years before. (I also gave him his first flight in an airplane.) While flying with Victor, he was able to point out the owners of the farm fields we flew over and found the fishing holes that he remembered from his youth. He was able to do this miles and miles away from his current home. Andy was able to do the same thing. One day, Andy wanted to see a new “whistle” (culvert) that his son was putting in about 60 miles away. After a number of twists and turns while viewing the recent flooding of local rivers and fields, Andy was able to point me in the exact direction to find his son’s home. The sense of direction both these men possessed, and their memories of the places over which we flew, even while airborne in a new-to-them environment, was impressive.
Victor passed away just a few months after we flew together and we lost Andy a few years later. I was grateful to have flown with both of them and will always remember those flights.
What do you wish more people knew about Angel Flight South Central?
Mostly just that the program exists. I’m still surprised when I meet pilots at aviation-related events and they know nothing about it. Aviation is certainly an “experience,” but flying with Angel Flight is a great way to gain valuable experience in aviation. And, it’s a chance to give back.
Can you tell us a little more about how you first started flying?
My first flight as a student pilot was in November, 1973 in an American AA-1B Yankee at Friendship International Airport (now Baltimore/Washington International) in Baltimore, MD. This was in a program at the Naval Academy for future pilots. I went on to obtain my Private certificate in March, 1974. After graduation in June, 1974, I went into training to become a Naval Aviator. Most of my Navy flying was in the LTV A-7E Corsair II. While flying the A-7 off the carrier, I made the decision to stay in for a twenty-year career as I was having too much fun to get out.
After retirement, I put my Flight Instructor ratings to use and compiled over 1,000 hours of flight instruction. Within a couple years, I began an airline career that had me flying the Douglas DC-9 and Boeing 717.
After leaving the airlines and a short, third career as a tax preparer, I’m now fully engaged in flying my Beech F33A Bonanza with Angel Flight, Pilots N Paws, and formation flying with an active group in Texas.
For me, flying started out being fun and it still is.