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Borne on the wings of angels

Free service provides flights for patients needing out-of-the-area care

October 19, 2010
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - Since 1989, pilots involved with Northwoods Airlifeline have flown over 2,200 missions transporting ailing Upper Peninsula residents to distant hospitals around the Midwest.

This free service is available 24/7. An all weather hangar and two aircraft owned by the organization are based in Iron Mountain.

Steve Phillips, pilot and treasurer with the organization, said pilots transport people living in the U.P. to hospitals in lower Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other areas.

Article Photos

At left, top, two of Northwoods Airlifeline’s planes are shown. At left, bottom, a group of pilots involved with Northwoods Airlifeline pose for a recent photo. (Steve Phillips photos)

"We take people mostly for specialized care that they can't get in the U.P," Phillips said. Passengers have included burn victims, people needing organ transplants or other medical services not locally available.

Both of the organization's planes are equipped for all-weather flying, although Phillips said not severe weather will cancel a flight. He has been involved in the organization since 1992 and flies about 15 to 20 missions a year.

"I just love to fly, and it was a way to help people and fly at the same time," he said.

Phillips recalled a specific patient that was a passenger on multiple missions.

"There is a little girl we transported out of Manistique ... her parents credit us with actually saving her life," he said. "She was born with a birth defect. We had to transport her to Ann Arbor multiple times. I don't know the exact number but it was 20 to 30 times. It was a lot. Her parents would have lost their jobs if they would have had to drive her there and spend that much time away from work. They're very grateful for our service ... and we all flew her from time to time. She got to know all of us."

For some people, it's their first flight in a small plane, Phillips said, and for others it's their first flight ever.

"They're usually nervous at first, but not so nervous at the end of the flight," he said. "They're very grateful."

The entire organization is run by volunteers with no paid staff. Phillips said there is a core of six pilots that fly 90 percent of the missions. He said the group is always looking for more pilots to volunteer and more donations to help keep the service going.

To be eligible for a flight, a person must: have an appointment at a hospital, be able to get on and off the airplane with little assistance, a doctor's approval to fly, make their own arrangement to get to the departure airport and from arrival airport to the appointment.

"We're not a medical flight. We don't transport people where you need a nurse or doctor on board. All our patients have to be able to get in and out of the plane by themselves. They also have to have some kind of a need as to why they need the flight," he said. "Either they can't drive or can't afford to drive. You can't just call up and say hey take me here. We're not that kind of a service."

For more information about the service, contact a local Lions or Lioness club or call 800-311-1760. The organization's website is Northwoods Airlifeline was started by Bob Larson and his wife Ruth, of Kingsford.

Both saw the critical need to get patients in the U.P. to hospitals around the Midwest for specialized treatment. Bob Larson started flying as many people as he could and soon recruited other pilots to his cause.

Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is



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