It was after midnight on July 1 when the ringing telephone jolted Brian Weiss awake.
Dennis Torres was on the line. He had just talked to Jennifer Marik, a nurse at the UCLA Medical Center, who said that a patient had to be brought from Yuma, Ariz., as soon as possible to receive a donated kidney that had just been made available.
Torres asked if Weiss, a free-lance writer and pilot, could fly to Yuma immediately, pick up the patient and return him to UCLA Medical Center.
Weiss could. Normally he would have flown his own plane, a four-seat Cessna 172, out of Santa Monica Airport. This time, however, he would be co-pilot for Jason Levenson, a pilot and pizza parlor owner who lives in Alta Loma.
Levenson and Weiss took off from Van Nuys Airport at 2:30 a.m. and returned at 7:30 with the patient, 21-year-old Gustavo Chavez, and his mother.
Marik picked Chavez up and whisked him to the pediatric nephrology department to receive a new kidney. He had waited for one since 1983, when his body had rejected a second transplant.
Chavez's surgery was performed later that day and the new kidney appears to be functioning properly, Marik said.
The men who came to Chavez's aid are all members of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Medical Support Flight Team (Angel Flight), an organization of about 100 pilots who donate their time and airplanes to transport donor organs, patients, and sometimes their families--all without charge.
Chavez's flight was only one of many mercy missions the pilots make each year.
Last weekend they helped the mother of a cancer victim.
Nurses at UCLA were planning a surprise trip to Disneyland last Sunday to celebrate the fourth birthday of leukemia patient Rhiannon Willis. The trip was canceled when she developed pneumonia.
Rhiannon's mother, Laurie, lives and works in Las Vegas. The Candlelighters, a Las Vegas charity that has been helping Willis pay for her frequent trips between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, contacted Angel Flight. Torres coordinated the pilots in both cities.
On Saturday, pilots from Las Vegas flew Willis into Santa Monica Airport. She spent the night at her daughter's bedside and Sunday evening Los Angeles members Sherman (Tex) Given and Gary Davi returned her to Las Vegas.
Given, a retired building contractor, climbed aboard his Beechcraft Bonanza carrying a large grocery sack full of snacks because, he said, "I didn't know if Mrs. Willis ate at the hospital."
Torres, who founded the Los Angeles chapter of the national organization in December, 1983, said such thoughtfulness is not uncommon among the Angel Flight pilots. Some of them have brought gifts to patients they have transported and given parties for whole wards of children.
Betsy Crowl, administrator of the Loma Linda Eye Bank, said the pilots have come to her aid many times when she received calls for corneas.
"It's the finest organization I've ever worked with," Crowl said. "Many times we have had emergencies and haven't been able to fly the corneas and we have called Dennis at the Los Angeles Chapter.
"From the time we take the corneas (from the donor) we have three days, but the longer they sit, the more they decompose. Doctors like to get them as soon as possible and usually schedule surgery the day the corneas are sent out.
"All I do is call Dennis and within an hour he calls back with the name of the pilot," Crowl said.
Torres, a land developer from Malibu who is a Vietnam veteran and a pilot, said it usually takes him about 20 calls to plan a flight. The chapter flies about five missions a month.
It was through Crowl that the California Skin Bank in San Pedro heard of Angel Flight.
When a high-pressure steam line broke in a Nevada generating plant last June, the skin bank received an urgent call for fresh skin for a badly burned worker. Pilots from Angel Flight made two runs carrying skin from the bank to Nevada.
Torres emphasized that Angel Flight is not an air ambulance service and planes are not equipped to transport people who need medical care en route and require special equipment.
The pilots include doctors, bankers, writers, mechanics and flight instructors, a television executive and a movie producer.
All are certified and screened, Torres said. They can land in the smallest, most remote landing strips. About 60% own their planes and about 40% rent them. All the aircraft are single- or twin-engine planes. Tissue, blood, and other medical supplies can be flown by a single pilot, but two pilots always fly passengers.
'No Stopping Them'
"One of our pilots is so busy, you have to go through four secretaries to get to him," Torres said. "He's swamped. Lives life in the fast lane. But when it comes to Angel Flight business, he will stop the whole world.
"Flying is a mistress to pilots and when they can combine it with doing good like this, there is no stopping them."