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Pilots help out burn victims

Christina Proctor

The 12-year-old boy climbed into a single-engine airplane and began to settle himself in one of the rear seats.

“I’m a little worried about him,” the boy’s father confided to the co-pilot. “This will be his first time meeting other kids who have gone through the same thing. He’s been dealing with this all on his own. His teachers didn’t want me to take him out of school because he’s missed so much already, but this is important.”

Bobby didn’t see his father waving goodbye as the Cessna P210 taxied across the weed-studded, broken pavement and headed toward the runway. He was caught up in his own thoughts, staring out an opposite window. His left arm, covered with a skintight blue sleeve, lay cradled in his lap. It was the only visible sign of his injuries. His father turned and began walking toward the parking lot of the Fallon Municipal Airport as the plane made its final turn for takeoff.

On Saturday, similar scenes were repeated around California and Nevada as 60 young people said goodbye to their families and climbed aboard private planes for the trip to Fresno, Calif., and “Champ Camp.” Sponsored by the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, the weeklong camp is for burn survivors age 5 to 18.

“I just hope there are other people who like to skateboard, and I hope we don’t have to sleep on the ground,” Bobby said, finally breaking his silence 10 minutes into the flight. Already bored with the pilot’s radio talk, Bobby took off his headset, readjusted his baseball cap and looked down at the desert landscape.

Pilot John Guthrie and co-pilot John Brown are Angel Flight West members. They donate their time, flying skills and airplanes to help others. Taking Bobby and one other boy to camp is Guthrie’s sixth mission with the nonprofit organization.

A retired executive director of a veteran’s organization, Guthrie moved from Virginia to South Lake Tahoe about five years ago. He bought a house several years earlier after coming to the South Shore to ski. A pilot since 1965, Guthrie became involved with Angel Flight after stopping by a booth at an aviation convention in San Jose.

“It really gives you a good feeling to help people,” Guthrie said.

Angel Flight provides free flights to and from treatment facilities for people with medical problems who can’t afford to pay for a ticket or are unable to travel on public transportation.

Angel Flight pilots made it possible for Curtis, 11, to attend Champ Camp for the last couple years. His excitement is barely contained as he walks out with his uncle to Guthrie’s plane.

“I’ve never flown on a plane in my life,” Curtis’ uncle admits, looking uncertainly at the interior. “We live over there on that ridge so we see them taking off all the time.”

Curtis lives outside of Georgetown, Calif., a small rural town nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills midway between Placerville and Auburn.

A break in the flight when everyone gets out to stretch their legs is almost too much for Curtis. His first question after takeoff is, “How long till we get there?” Five minutes later the question is repeated.

Curtis bubbles over with information about camp and although Bobby tries hard to resist, he finally asks a few questions.

“Do you have to sleep on the ground?” Bobby asks.

“No, they have beds. You sleep in cabins. It’s only guys. The girls sleep in separate cabins. You can’t stay together.” Curtis explains, craning back to look at Bobby. “Where are you burned? I got burned with gas on my legs and back, over 19 percent of my body.”

“I got burned on more than 21 percent of my body,” Bobby says, searching for some sign of Curtis’ injuries. “Where are your burns?”

Curtis pulls up one of his shorts’ legs, showing white scars. Bobby’s burns are too new to show. He still has to wear a special suit under his clothes to protect skin grafts

“What kind of motorcycles do we get to ride?” Bobby queries, his mind again on the week ahead.

“150’s,” Curtis says, shrugging to indicate that although they’re not Harleys, they’ll do. “How much longer?” he asks again.

Once on the ground in Fresno the boys join up with a slowly growing group of campers at the terminal. Angel Flight pilots hang out in the lobby watching their passengers integrate with the group. One little girl shyly offers her pilots homemade brownies, her payment for the ride.

“Seeing these kids makes you realize just how little your problems are,” Guthrie says, keeping one eye on the whereabouts of Bobby and Curtis.

Curtis is occupied with several boys he obviously knows from previous years at camp. Bobby seems to stand back and survey the situation with the aloofness only an almost-13-year-old boy can manage. The facade is broken when several other boys approach and start to talk with him.

“You almost feel like they’re yours,” Guthrie says. “It looks like Bobby’s going to do just fine.”

The children are taken by camp volunteers and the pilots, who don’t often congregate in one place, across the street for lunch.

One pilot says on the way to lunch donating his time to Angel Flight was his way of justifying the expense of flying.

“I don’t own a plane. I rent one,” he says. “Taking someone who can’t afford it to a place they need to go is a lot better than flying out for a $100 hamburger.”

The $100 hamburger is a euphemism many pilots use because they often fly several hundred miles just for lunch. Lunch gives them a destination.

The pilots linger over the meal, discussing planes, flying and different missions. Many of the pilots won’t be taking the kids home at the end of the week. Those missions, posted on the organization’s website, filled up too quickly.

The pilots head back to their planes. Most of the kids have already started off on the bus trip to the ranch.

Guthrie and Brown punch in the flight plan for the return trip to the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

“I just like the feeling of giving back. At the end you think that was a good day and I’m glad I did it,” Guthrie says.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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