TRAVERSE CITY — When Kathy Kerby needs to go to Minnesota's Mayo Clinic for medical care, she turns to Wings of Mercy.
The nonprofit organization uses volunteer pilots to fly eligible patients back and forth to long-distance medical appointments at no charge. Other forms of transportation are often too expensive or take too long.
"You call them: It's just wonderful. It's kind of like a little angel waiting for you," said Kerby, of Kalkaska, who has taken several flights since 2008 with the organization.
Wings of Mercy was founded in 1991 and is based in Zeeland, with chapters in east Michigan and Minnesota. Volunteer pilots fly their own single, twin and jet engine planes. The nonprofit has made more than 3,400 missions since its start, has a roster of nearly 300 pilots and about 50 planes. This year has been its busiest to date, with about 170 flights thus far, said Sharon Huminsky, senior flight director.
The most common destinations are the Mayo Clinic and the University of Michigan hospital system in Ann Arbor.
Fuel costs are the organization's biggest expense. A local fundraiser is planned from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Cherry Capital Aviation hangar near Traverse City's old airport entrance.
The Traverse City Wings of Mercy Care Affaire will feature a hot dog meal, children's games and fire trucks and planes to check out. Cost is a suggested $5 donation. Pilots also will offer plane rides for an additional cost, said Mary Robinson, a local nurse and event chair. She helps organize flights, and this spring helped arrange for a patient to be flown to Tampa, Fla.
Traverse City pilot Mark Evans has volunteered for Wings of Mercy for about six years and flies about every other week for the organization with other area pilots.
"We've had some folks who've had pretty rough medical history," Evans said. "That's quite common."
He recalled one child, whom he flew to treatment as a baby. Now, she's 5 years old.
"It's one of the things that helps keep us going," he said.
Huminsky said the organization considers a patient's finances and income when determining eligibility, but each case is "looked at individually."
Kerby praised the pilots for their care and attention during flights and willingness to serve. The flights save her a long car drive that could take about 13 hours, and it helps trim expenses from trips that can drain budgets with motel stays, cab fares, meals, and, of course, medical bills.
For more information about the organization, visit the website www.wingsofmercy.org.