By Sally Voth - email@example.com
Woodstock resident John Billings is an angel in more ways than one -- he has a set of wings and he carries people when they most need help.
For the second time, he has been named Virginia Pilot of the Year by Angel Mid-Atlantic, which provides free medical flights.
Billings, who began working for the charity in 2005, has flown more than 150 patient missions, according to a news release from Angel Flight.
"With the slogan 'the shortest distance between home and hope,' Angel Flight serves ambulatory patients of all ages, with medical conditions ranging from rare diseases to burns to cancer," the release states. "In this suffering economy, patients often lack the financial means to pay for long-distance transportation."
It adds that more than 600 pilots volunteer their time and aircraft -- including the cost of fuel and upkeep -- for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic. In Virginia in 2011, Virginia pilots flew 151 missions, worth $116,200, according to the release.
Aviation captivated Billings from an early age.
"I like to tell people it was my father's fault," Billings, 88, recalled in a phone interview Friday. "When I was 3-years-old, he went out and bought two tickets on a local airplane and [we] flew around the local area. That infected me. Later on, for my 15th birthday, he paid for my first flying lesson."
Nearly 30 years after he retired as an airline pilot, he tries to make one Angel flight a week. He ferries patients from infancy to old age.
"The one that affected my senses the most was a little boy who was to be 1-year-old a week after I took him, him and his mother," Billings said.
He was flying the mother and child from North Carolina to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. The boy had an auto-immune disorder which robbed him of all four of his limbs as well as part of his face, including his nose.
"The thing that affected me the most...while [the mother] was getting in, I held the child, and that child did not weigh as much as my cat," Billings said. "He was 8 pounds, and he was almost a year old."
Billings flew the youngster a year later, and by that time, he had been fitted with one prosthetic leg.
This month, Billings, who is originally from Massachusetts, will take one of his oldest patients to New York.
"I'm taking a man who was born in 1919, and he was a soldier that came ashore at Normandy Beach," he said.
The man is being recognized with other D-Day soldiers, and will fly from New York to London, and then go on to France, Billings said.
Like that old soldier, Billings is a World War II veteran, having served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, as well as the Operation of Strategic Services, for which he flew nearly 40 secret missions from Italy, according to the news release.
"When I approached [the] age of draft, I did not want to be a soldier and fight eyeball-to-eyeball," Billings said. "That to me was scary. I decided I would enlist instead and request [the] aviation cadet program. And, I was lucky enough to be awarded that, and the rest is history.
"I haven't got it out of my system yet."
According to the Angel Flight release, Billings has more than 27,000 flight hours, and was given the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award by the Federal Aviation Administration six years ago.
Billings moved to Woodstock in 1996 from Mt. Vernon. He'd been flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport before then, and was the airport's Air Safety Committee Chairman.
These days, he flies out of Luray Caverns Airport in a four-seater Cessna Cutlass RG-II.
Billings plans to continue flying for Angel Flights "as long as my bank will let me."
"It really gives me a good feeling to be able to do that," he added. "I'm happy to do this.
"I only fly when there's a good excuse, like it's daytime, or it's snowing, or it's raining."