Paula Dougherty flies over houses that look like tiny specs in sprawling forests on her flights down to Boston for her doctor's appointments. She is in remission from stage four bladder cancer, but still needs to be seen regularly.

The Morrill resident can fly out of Belfast in small planes to her appointments because of generous pilots who volunteer through Angel Flight NE. The trip would otherwise require her to drive five hours and find a place to stay overnight before driving another five hours home after treatments.

She heard about the organization while getting radiation treatments in Boston, she said. At the time she was staying with her daughter or at a cousin’s house during treatments.

But her family has since moved out of the area. Sometimes she has to stay in hotels when attending several doctor's appointments. But she is able to get same-day transportation to and from the hospital through Angel Flight when she does not have to stay in the area.

Daugherty lives alone and does not have any relatives living nearby, so the organization has been like a family to her, she said. She thinks the flights are emotionally uplifting and all the pilots are skilled.

“There’s so many kind people and the pilots are just terrific,” she said. “They are willing to help out and do not feel burdened by it, which is just amazing to me. … I just feel as though my health is in the hands of angels.”

Kenn Ortmann, who has transported her before, and Francis Albert are two volunteer pilots who were recognized recently at the organization’s Evening of Angels Gala.

Ortmann has completed over 100 flights with the organization. Albert was recognized for flying over 10 relief flights to deliver COVID-19 supplies to hospitals and Native American tribes. But they agree that they do not keep track of their past flights, just the next ones.

They fly all over the state to transport people with serious medical problems to appointments. For some of the organization’s patients, Angel Flight is their only way to reach medical attention they cannot get locally.

Ortmann, who manages Belfast Municipal Airport, said a lot of pilots volunteer for the organization to give back to their community, and it gives them a reason to fly frequently. He volunteers about twice a month to transport patients, some of whom said they would not have sought out important medical care if they did not have access to the transportation Angel Flight provides.

Some pilots receive fuel reimbursement if they complete extra certifications, but others do not participate in the fuel reimbursement program, he said. All pilots donate their time, airplane and other expenses related to flying.

Albert said he has developed close relationships with some patients he frequently transports. Some of the people he flies keep him updated on their condition and if their health is improving.

As a Madawaska native, he knows how remote some towns in Maine are. He grew up on a farm next to an airport and used to watch planes fly in over his house. As a child, he thought being a pilot looked “better than driving a tractor.”

He said he frequently accepts flights from the organization’s online portal for people in the far reaches of northern Maine. A drive from Aroostook County to Boston is an all-day trip, but it usually takes only a couple of hours in a plane.

“Frenchville is still an hour away from Presque Isle,” he said. “People don’t realize how big the state is.”

Angel Flight media representative Barbara Sica said 40% of flights registered through the organization are for patients in Maine. It serves patients throughout the Northeast from Maine to New York.

In Maine, 61.6% of residents live in rural areas, which makes it the most rural state in New England, according to estimates from 2011 to 2015 on the United States Census website. Maine and Vermont have the highest proportion of people living in rural areas nationally.

Over 400 volunteers are registered through Angel Flight for services like air and ground transportation, as well as organ and COVID-19 personal protective equipment transportation to hospitals, she said.

They provide transportation for about 100 patients per week and up to 3,500 patients per year, Sica said. When a volunteer pilot is not available, Angel Flight has a partnership with Cape Air and JetBlue to put people on commercial flights free of charge.

Sica said the list of patients who need transportation is always larger than the number of volunteer pilots the organization has.

The number of pilots signing up for flights is down this year because of COVID-19, she said. The organization follows all mask mandates recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for patients and volunteers during trips.

Dougherty said wearing masks is nothing new to her. She has been wearing them since before the COVID-19 outbreak because of her cancer. She is grateful that Angel Flight decided to continue to offer services through the coronavirus pandemic instead of shutting down operations. The organization is very reliable and she has never been deserted or had a flight canceled.

“They’re like Santa Clauses of the air,” she said, “… because they’re just so generous and always giving.”

Donations and information about how to volunteer for Angel Flight can be found at angelflightne.org.