Volunteer Pilots Keep Blood Flowing To Arizona Patients

By Chloe Nordquist, Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, December 11, 2015 - 11:43am
Updated: Friday, December 11, 2015 - 5:20pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Paul Rowley is one of nearly 250 volunteer pilots who fly blood across the state for a nonprofit organization called Flights for Life. Pilots like him donate their time, their plane, and the cost of fuel and repairs in order to delivery their vital cargo.

Arizona is dotted with tiny communities in remote reaches of the state. That can make transportation difficult for people, for goods and even for blood.

However, one team of volunteers based in the Valley keeps blood flowing to patients in need all over Arizona by way of plane.

On a recent morning, Paul Rowley was buckled into the pilot seat of his airplane at Falcon Field in Mesa, taking one last look at all the gadgets in front of him before taking off.

“Clear!” he yelled before starting his engine.

He was on his way to Show Low and then Flagstaff, with important passengers in the back -- platelets, boxes of them. Platelets spoil within a matter of days, which is why pilots like Rowley make such a difference.

Rowley said planes like his Cessna 182 Skylane can make a trip four times faster than a car. “Faster than anybody,” he explained.

Rowley isn’t the only one dedicating time to fly blood around the state. He is one of more than 240 pilots in the state who volunteer for Flights for Life, an organization that shuttles blood every day, largely out of the public eye. Every dime of expenses is paid for by the pilots.

Pilots fly blood to Tucson and Flagstaff 365 days a year, on top of trips to other towns in hard to reach areas. In total, volunteer pilots complete around 1,000 flights, or “missions,” each year.

“You feel great,” Rowley said. “You know, you feel like hey, I’m doing something worthwhile.”

Flights for Life was founded back in 1984 by four pilots who said they wanted to do more with their planes than just “poke holes in the sky.”  The task of flying blood has proven beneficial to many, including those in life or death situations.

In 2000, Tempe Police officer Scott Tipton was shop seven times while on duty. He was in the middle of a city at the time, but still needed help from Flights for Life because of his rare blood type.

“I ended up going through 27 units of O-negative blood. And they had to fly it in,” Tipton said.

The situation impacted Tipton, so much so that even 15 years later he still speaks at Flights for Life events.

“It’s a blessing. It’s great,” he said.

Flights for Life has also delivered blood during other emergencies such as the October shooting at Northern Arizona University that killed a student. But more often than not, pilots are responding to accidents that don't get as much attention, like a house fire in Tuba City or a head-on collision in Cottonwood.

All of that blood comes from Scottsdale-based United Blood Services of Arizona. The blood is brought into one room after it’s donated, and then dispersed to the hospitals the blood bank serves.

Spokeswoman Sue Thew stood in front of a row of coolers filled with more than a thousand little bags the color of a rich red wine.

“We strive to keep a three-day supply of blood on hand,” Thew said. “Blood has a shelf life, so you can’t stockpile blood.”

United Blood Services supplies 90 percent of the hospitals in the state. Thew said Flights for Life continues to help them reach so many people. She estimates that the service saves her non-profit organization nearly $300,000 every year.

“It’s just so important to us,” Thew said.

For Thew, the process of giving blood is also personal. A blood transfusion helped save her father after a major surgery, and allowed him to live another year and a half.

There are stories like that everywhere. Just ask any Flights for Life pilot.

“We save lives!” president of the Flights for Life organization Mac McClure said as he sat at a restaurant amongst his fellow volunteer pilots.

McClure can often be found at The Deer Valley Airport restaurant in north Phoenix where he has breakfast with some of his Flights for Life buddies. Saving lives, McClure said, is the reason he doesn’t mind volunteering his time, his plane, and those hundreds of dollars in fuel it costs him every time he delivers blood to some far-flung community.

“And if you ever need it. I hope you never do. We will be there,” he said.

Flights for Life will also be expanding to New Mexico soon as well. McClure has also gotten calls from pilots from Alaska to Tennessee wishing they could help out too.

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