Angel’s Wings: Mark Stuckey 90C 93L is a pilot on a mission
From the rain-glazed windows of the small lobby at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, just about ten minutes from the Emory campus, Mark Stuckey’s Bonanza A-36 looks like a bright red, white, and blue toy airplane a child might launch into the air with one hand.
But for the two young mothers climbing out of the four-seat passenger compartment onto the landing strip, each juggling a baby and a diaper bag, this flight is anything but child’s play. Both babies have plagiocephaly, a condition that causes the head to be misshapen and can create worse troubles if left untreated. They wear Styrofoam helmets to correct the problem, but because their heads are growing so rapidly, these helmets have to be adjusted at metro-area pediatric centers every week.
That’s where Mark Stuckey 90C 93L, a mild-mannered lawyer in jeans and Harley-Davidson boots, comes in. For more than a year, he’s been flying as a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight of Georgia, a nonprofit that provides free air transportation around the South for people who have medical needs that can’t be met where they live. This morning he has picked up Bridgette Ray and her eight-month-old son, Tyson, and Skye Tarr with six-month-old Sawyer, in Savannah, saving them a four-hour drive each way. The mothers and babies will ride in a free Angel Flight van to the hospital for their appointments, while Stuckey waits at the airport to fly them back in the afternoon.
Light rain and a strong crosswind made this morning’s trip more taxing than most, but both moms and babies appear unruffled as they prepare to pile into the van. Just a few months before, Ray confides, Stuckey took her and Tyson on her first plane ride—ever. Now, after a few more, she feels like a seasoned flier.
Stuckey has flown several novice air passengers and nervous parents. “You just have to talk to them a little more and explain the sounds, so they won’t get freaked out,” Stuckey says.
“It’s amazing how these pilots are so concerned about our comfort, and it’s all for strangers,” Tarr adds. “And they ask for nothing in return.”
A Macon attorney who works in medical malpractice and aviation law, Stuckey says flying runs in his blood. His grandfather founded an airport in Reston, Louisiana, and helped start the aviation program there, and his dad was an Air Force pilot who flew F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam. Stuckey earned his pilot’s license in 2003.
“I’ve always been into aviation, ever since
I was a kid,” he says.
Now he flies occasionally for fun, such as when he and a friend flew to see a Louisiana State University football game, and sometimes takes his wife, Olivia, three-year-old son, Davis, and baby daughter, Ava, up for a spin. But more often he takes trips for Angel Flight—about one a month, which he schedules around work commitments.
All six hundred-plus volunteer Angel Flight pilots cover the costs of each mission, which for Stuckey can average about $600 to $1,000 in maintenance, hangar space, and fuel. The Atlanta-based organization has expanded rapidly in recent years, from 272 missions in 2000 to 1,786 in 2005.
Beverly Syrek works at Peachtree-DeKalb’s Mercury Air Center and has served as an “Earth Angel” for Angel Flight for about six years, frequently driving the patients to their hospital appointments. The slightest mention of the program is sufficient prodding for her to produce what she calls her “pride and joy”: a large manila envelope bursting with thank-you cards, notes, and photos of Angel Flight children. “I take pictures of all the babies,” she says proudly.
For Stuckey, those pictures mean his time flying Angel Flight missions is well spent.
“If you have a talent or a gift you can use, why not use it to help folks in need?” he says. “I always think, that could be my kid. A lot of these folks have few resources and the treatment alone is a huge burden. I remember what it was like being paycheck to paycheck—I can’t imagine if my kid has an ailment on top of that.”
Although he is not as forthcoming as Syrek, Stuckey also keeps a collection of cards and notes from patients he has flown. He shares a note he received recently from a grateful mother:
“There is no way we can thank you enough, for your time, energy, and loving heart. We will never forget that, because of you and others like you, our child has a chance to live. You are our hero, you are our angel. P.S. Imani said you are the best pilot ever. She smiled! (That’s a good thing!)”
“As you can imagine,” Stuckey says, “it’s hard for me to keep my composure every time I read this note.”—P.P.P.
For more information about Angel Flight of Georgia, visit www.angelflight-ga.org.