Joseph DeMarco Sr. learned how to fly nearly four decades ago, when it cost $22 an hour to rent a small plane and $8 a lesson out of Quaker Flying Services in Orchard Park.
Since he bought his first small plane in 2004, DeMarco has offered an even better deal to those who need medical care outside the region.
Soon after buying the plane, he tagged along on his first humanitarian trip — on behalf of Angel Flight Northeast — with Dr. Kevin DeAngelo, a Southtowns dentist, who was flying a sick 2-year-old boy for treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the second-rated cancer hospital in New York City.
“I didn't know at first the little guy had cancer,” DeMarco recalled. “The mom started crying and she was hugging us and said, 'We can't take public transportation because he has no immune system and is susceptible to germs.' From that moment on, I was pretty much hooked.”
The former construction company owner, who still lives in the Southtowns, estimated he has since flown almost 5,000 passengers — most after founding the nonprofit Wings Flights of Hope in 2010.
He leads an all-volunteer team of 20 pilots — including car dealers, an architect, two surgeons and three dentists — who fly “everything from a little four-seat Cessna right up to a jet,” DeMarco said.
Those who need services can go online to wingsflight.org or call 866-619-4647, answer several questions and arrange flights free of charge, regardless of income. Donations also are accepted online.
Q: Why do people need to leave the region for care?
Sometimes, it could be for just another medical opinion. We fly a lot of people who are told nothing can be done for them here. They'll get accepted into a clinical study and it's very demanding for the patient. Sometimes doctors want them every week or every other week. If they miss out, then they're out of these studies.
Q: What are the three most common flights that you make?
Most common is New York/New Jersey, for Sloan-Kettering. Boston is for Dana-Farber, another cancer place. Cleveland is for a lot of unusual things, where people are scratching their heads for a diagnosis and treatment. They also do a lot of heart cases.
Q: Where do you fly out of?
Buffalo Niagara International, Niagara Falls, Buffalo Airfield on Clinton Street in West Seneca, Lancaster Airport, Jamestown Airport. We're pretty spread out.
Q: How are you funded?
Our annual budget is around $400,000. We accept donations but it's important for people to understand that we don't take any money for the people we fly. We're not for hire. That's an FAA rule. It's all from little donations: Rotary clubs, Lions clubs, churches, private individuals. Every little bit helps. Because of what we're doing, the airports waive our landing fees, which is fantastic … but we pay for the planes, hanger space and fuel.
Q: Talk about your patient passengers.
It's probably 55 percent adults and 45 percent children. At least 60 percent of them have cancer. The ages are all over. We flew a baby who was 3 months old with cancer in both eyes, other children with neuroblastoma. Thank God there's many more happy stories than sad with the kids. I flew someone a couple weeks ago who is 95 years old and has some kind of rare autoimmune disease.
We're getting about 95 percent of the flights accomplished. We don't turn anyone down. There might be a time where we have too many flights in one day and ask people to reschedule. The emergency flights take precedence, of course. We're one of the only organizations left in the country that are still doing emergency flights. I think the transplants are the most rewarding ones you can do.
Q: Can family members fly with patients?
Usually one goes; sometimes two or three. We try to keep it to the mother and father, and the child, or a spouse or partner. Very rarely does anyone go alone. We also do compassion flights for family members if a patient is in a hospital out of town.
Q: How many flights have you flown this year and are more scheduled during the holidays?
I do about 250 to 300 a year. The other guys, altogether, do about 200. Scheduling is all over. On Wednesday, we did two families going to Philly. Every single day last week was multiple flights.
We've had everything, but not on Christmas Day. There's been Valentine's. There's been birthdays. There's been Bills games where I've had to have a sheriff's deputy run me to my car. But if it happens on Christmas Day, whatever. I'm lucky I have a wife and a son that are very supportive.
Q: Can you share a story that keeps you and the other volunteers going?
I met a young lady, Kristina, when she was 18 years old. She was yellow and had cirrhosis from hepatitis. Every time I flew her, she was more ill. She ended up at 20 years old at Pittsburgh Children's in a coma. … I took her into intensive care and they told me, "We don't think she's going to make it at this point. I ended up leaving that night and thought that could have been it for her. The great news is she came out of her coma and she got a liver transplant. She's 33 now and got married at 32 — and she asked me to walk her down the aisle. She volunteers for Wings now and has two little girls. We don't get paid money — but there's a lot more to getting paid.