As of March 24, 634 people in Southwest Utah have died from COVID-19 and thankfully in recent weeks both deaths and cases have dropped off quickly. But for the people who knew any of the 634 people that died, they know those deaths aren’t just a statistic and are still impacted by the disease.
That’s the case for one St. George resident, Nathan Parnham, who had his best friend die from the disease in October of 2021.
“COVID didn’t discriminate, especially that Delta variant,” Parnham said.
His friend, Brian Almazan, was just 32 when he passed away. Both Almazan and Parnham shared a passion for aviation, Almazan was the CEO of Endeavor Jet International — which facilitates charter flights and airplane part sales — while Parnham is a certified ground instructor and a contract pilot with his own plane.
Parnham says that losing his friend was a tough experience but one that a lot of people have gone through during the past two years of the pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has taken hundreds of southern Utahns and millions worldwide, it wasn’t the only disease to affect people over the last two years and he wanted to do something to help people.
“I was trying to think of what can I do to use this airplane to improve someone else’s life,” Parnham said.
So Parnham decided to use his passion for aviation to help and is trying to fly for Angel Flight West. This organization is a nonprofit volunteer matching program that coordinates flights for “compelling human needs,” according to John Olson, the executive director for Angel Flight West.
These charitable purposes include flying people who are undergoing specialized medical treatments but live far away from treatment centers to their appointments and bringing medical supplies to remote areas of the country and helping out any charity that needs cheap transportation, said Olson.
Parnham knows that Angel Flight’s services can make a big difference for people going through draining medical treatments since he watched his mother go through cancer treatment while he was a teenager.
“It was pretty painful to watch her go through chemotherapy and four-hour infusions,” he said.
His mother beat her cancer, but Parnham said he realized that people going through intense medical treatment, especially in rural areas, can’t handle hours-long car trips and flying can be a better travel option.
Olson says that Angel Flight really relies on its pilot volunteers — who cover their flight expenses, like fuel, out of their own pocket — to operate.
“They’re very generous. It’s not inexpensive to fly an airplane,” Olson said.
This is something with which Parnham is quite familiar. He said fuel alone for planes can cost over $400 for one hour and keeping parts up to date is also expensive. So Parnham has started a GoFundMe page with a goal of $5,000 to ensure his Cessna 310 is up to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flying standards so that he can use his personal plane to participate in Angel Flight West.
Parnham also wants to match charity and aviation since when he was a kid he was able to fly through the Young Eagles program, which was huge for the self-described aviation nerd. He said the pilot that flew him that day left a big impression and that they are still in touch.
“That flight was money out of his pocket,” Parnham said. “Someone got me addicted to aviation through a charitable flight. So that’s why I want to use my airplane now [for Angel Flight]†
Due to FAA restrictions on how different types of flights can be funded, Parnham is only allowed to raise funds for the maintenance of his plane and can’t solicit funds for fuel costs for Angel Flight West. Olson says this is because Angel Flights are considered personal flights and are subject to lighter regulations than charter flights or commercial flights.
“I could probably afford to get the airplane airworthy and ready to go, then I won’t have any money left over to do an Angel Flight,” said Parnham.
Due to these rules, Parnham plans to use any funds raised only for his plane’s maintenance and if there are any funds leftover after his plane goes through the FAA inspection process will be used for future costs. As of late March, Parnham is $3,000 short of his $5,000 goal, with the hopes that he can raise the rest of the funds by the end of the month so he can start flying.
Olson says that the need for Angel Flight is as important as ever because of the “total disruption” the pandemic caused to the medical field. One study estimated in the first months of the pandemic 9 million Americans missed routine cancer screenings, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Another study from the American Cancer Society Journals indicates these missed screenings will lead to delayed diagnoses and poorer outcomes.
“People are still sick, people still have significant diseases and illnesses. But they tried, they did a great job of deferring,” said Olson. “However, that only goes so far, so a lot of people still need to get there [to their appointments]†
Olson says that Angel Flight West — which covers 13 states — completes typically around 5,000 flights a year. In the last two years, that number has dropped slightly since many pilots didn’t want to potentially infect people needing medical treatments during the pandemic. He notes that since the COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, more and more pilots are returning to flying people to medical appointments.
Olson said that even with a reduction in its volunteer pilots, Angel Flight pivoted to other transportation missions including sending PPE to Native American Reservations and to firefighters during the tumultuous 2021 wildfire season. Those types of flights are still needed even as demand for patient transport increases with pandemic restrictions being relaxed across the country, Olson says, Angel Flight is in a position to coordinate more flights and “help even more.”
Parnham says that he’s willing to help out whenever he can to help people needing transport and thinks if Almazan was around he’d be just as willing to support Angel Flight.
“He’d be sitting right here helping, like even doing everything in his power to make sure this works exactly as we have it planned,” Parnham said.
Sean Hemmersmeier covers local government, growth and development in Southwestern Utah. Follow on Twitter @seanhemmers34† Our work depends on subscribers so if you want more coverage on these issues you can subscribe here: http://www.thespectrum.com/subscribe.