Hannah Sandeen, 11, of Des Moines, Iowa, and her stepbrother, Nile, 17, have one of those intense bonds that HIV nearly broke. The kids became roomies when Nile's dad married Hannah's mom, and the two grew close. But when Nile's father died of AIDS, Nile went South -- literally -- and ended up back home with his birth mom, hundreds of miles from Hannah.
Now the two family members get to snuggle only in summer, at Camp Heartland in rural Minnesota. This much-needed chance for connection is possible because the camp is free -- and so is their trip there in the single-engine plane care of AirLifeLine.
AirLifeLine, which calls on a crew of more than 1,600 volunteer pilots, is one of several nonprofits that press their flying machines -- free of charge -- into service of people with life-threatening illnesses and their kids. "We have a great group of people," said AirLifeLine's Tonia Chandler. "The pilots fly their own planes and donate all the direct costs for every mission." While AirLifeLine's specific mission is landing kids at camps, programs such as the United Way of America and Angel Flights lift their wings to deliver patients to faraway appointments with specialists -- especially useful for HIVers in those mountains or valleys far from high-tech hospitals.
The private trips do more than dispense with travel costs that would be prohibitive for many people with HIV. While some programs, such as United Way's, use donated frequent-flier miles to provide seats on large carriers, others use four-seaters to bypass the hassles of a commercial flight. Most programs allow each HIVer to bring one complimentary caregiver, while kid patients get to pack both parents gratis. These are friendly skies indeed.