Volunteer pilot flies medical sufferers within the northeast throughout the pandemic

DARTMOUTH – While the past year was little travel for some a year, Richard Jacobs said he had flown more than ever.

Jacobs joined Angel Flight Northeast as a volunteer pilot in the mid-1990s after starting out as an amateur pilot in 1982. Jacobs had been based in South Dartmouth since 2002 and practiced as a lawyer until his retirement. His hobby became his activity after his career. Having recently exceeded 800 flights, he is reflecting on its impact on patients.

“The last thing to worry about is how to get your treatment,” said Jacobs. “Saving a life means saving the world.”

Jacobs owns his own aircraft, which is stored at New Bedford Regional Airport. From there, he can quickly get on board and send it to his destination. His primary responsibility as an Angel Flight pilot is to take patients to a medical center by air for faster transportation than by land. A form tells Jacobs why the patient needs to be transported, but he doesn’t read into it too much as flying is his priority.

“It’s none of my business, I really don’t want to know,” said Jacobs.

Before the pandemic, Jacobs flew out every few weeks. However, he increased that number to two to three flights a week as many pilots decided not to fly during COVID-19.

“Illnesses and treatments don’t stop,” said Jacobs.

Richard Jacobs and patients are preparing to take off.

He’s comfortable flying them as the seats on his plane face back and everyone wears face masks. He has adapted to the COVID-19 protocols, disinfected his aircraft after every flight and even provided disposable earplugs for passengers.

Jacobs has not transported any COVID-19 patients as most of its flights involve patient transplants, regularly scheduled cancer treatments, and burn victims. Only once has he flown on his plane without a patient and with only one kidney and flown from Baltimore to Boston.

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On April 6, Jacobs took off on its 809th flight. He flew a woman named Jordan, 31, and her mother from Syracuse to Boston for treatment. This flight pattern and length are very typical of Jacobs. He said most of his trips were three-point flights: New Bedford to Syracuse, Syracuse to Boston, and then back home.

Most of the flights are not time sensitive, but for a last minute scheduled flight he had to pick up a patient in Providence at 8 a.m. and fly to Pittsburgh by noon. They arrived around 11 a.m. and the patient received a new liver that afternoon.

Richard Jacobs and a patient.

Jacobs said he flew a kid out of New Jersey several times and saw him grow from kid to teenager. The boy was treated as a burned hand and leg victim for a period of five years.

Not all flights are this heartwarming, however.

“Those who tear your heart out are the victims of burns from children who go to Shriners [Hospital for Children]”Said Jacobs.

When his daughter was flying a patient, she saw the child with burns and began to cry. Jacobs said he remains very professional in flying, but the before and after periods are very difficult for him.

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However, some flights are longer and require half-way transfers with other aircraft. Jacobs said he started longer flights on JetBlue or Cape Air. His longest flights were from Boston to Baltimore or to Presque Isle, Maine.

As a small airplane pilot, Jacobs flies in the weather rather than up, so this is his main concern and the only barrier that could keep him from doing what he loves. If he is not comfortable in bad weather, he cancels a flight.

Patient ready to go.

Patients must be outpatient, which means they can walk and are not bedridden. Angel Flight Northeast has two full-time mission coordinators who relieve pilots like Jacobs. However, pilots must have a medical qualification, a physical exam and a flight examination every two years in order to continue flying.

Angel Flight Northeast offers free flights and ground transportation for those needing access to medical care in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Since launch in 1996, more than 80,000 flights have been planned and volunteer pilots have flown patients more than 14 million miles. The company also offers Earth Angels, a driver service that offers rides to patients after landing at a destination, in partnership with Ford Motor Company.

Jacobs and his young passenger.

Jacobs began flying Angel Flight Northeast because he wanted a sense of purpose after his retirement. Instead of taking a quick trip to Nantucket with his wife – frivolous trips classified as a “hundred dollar hamburger” flight – he wanted to do something to help others.

“I always cheer for flying,” said Jacobs. “It’s a win-win situation. I’m flying and helping someone, what could be better than that?”

Jacobs said he has no plans to stop traveling by air anytime soon.

“If I feel like I’m not doing this right, I stop,” he said. “I always learn and always learn.”

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