“Every patient is special to Ralph,” says Steve Patterson, former Angel Flight vice president and chairman of the Angel Flight of Virginia board of directors.
The interest and care Ralph Burr of Roanoke, Virginia displays for the patients he flies year after year is apparent in many ways. He takes pictures of every individual to include with his mission report. He relates to each on a one-to-one basis. He has the determination and patience to resolve issues that come up, such as that of his first flight with a patient from Charlottesville.
“The patient’s paperwork got fouled up because the insurance hadn’t been approved for the outpatient treatment needed for her brain tumor,” said Burr. “The woman and I spent three hours on the phone.” At the last minute, a North Carolina legislator intervened and “straightened things out” so the flight could take place.
Another memorable trip he recalls was to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The patient, a little girl named Tara, was frightened “that the trip would be bumpy.” Ralph said “she managed a little bit of a smile before we left, and I was able to get a picture of her. She gave me a great big hug after we arrived with no bumps!”
After retiring from General Electric in 1997, where he’d worked as an engineering manager for over three decades, Burr joined Angel Flight, persuaded by a flyer posted on the bulletin board at Piedmont Aviation. Since then, he’s flown 175 missions and was named Virginia Pilot of the Year in 2004.
He said he’s always been interested in flying “as long as I can remember. As a young boy I loved putting together model airplanes.” Then, in 1990, John, one of his three sons, suggested flying lessons at the local community college. After ground school and flight instruction, both Ralph and John obtained their pilots’ licenses and IFR ratings. Burr said his oldest son, Ralph, and his wife, Tanya, also learned to fly and became private pilots. “Surprisingly, my No. 3 son has no interest in flying or the plane.”
The plane is a 1977 Cessna 172. “Three engines and many dollars of avionics later I still own it,” he said, adding that he’s flown over 4,600 hours since buying the plane in 1991.
He said that volunteering for Angel Flight gives him an opportunity to fly to locations he wouldn’t ordinarily go to. “I receive a much greater sense of satisfaction by being able to help people directly. Spending money on avgas is a whole lot more rewarding than sending a check to some charity. I’ve made Angel Flight and buying avgas my number one charity.”