Dover's Dusty Carnahan has been recognized as Delaware Pilot of the Year by Angel Flight, a non-profit charity that supports transportation missions for the seriously ill.
Whenever he’s not home or out flying, Dusty Carnahan usually can be found in a hangar at the Chandelle Estates Airport east of Dover. Sitting at a cluttered workbench, he’ll be laboring over some improvement or other to his twin-engine Cessna, music blaring off an iPod that only partially drowns out the occasional wind gust rattling the metal siding.
It’s an ideal existence for Carnahan, who earlier this month was named Delaware Pilot of the Year for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic, a Virginia-based charity that provides free transportation services for the seriously ill.
“He’s one of our most devoted pilots,” said Suzanne Rhodes, director of public affairs for Mercy Medical Airlift, the group that sponsors Angel Flight. “We don’t have a lot of pilots in Delaware, and so just having him help out is really appreciated.”
It’s the second time since joining Angel Flight in 2006 that Carnahan, one of only nine volunteer pilots in Delaware, has received the honor. All told, almost 600 pilots volunteer their time, aircraft and resources to Angel Flight, making almost 800 mercy flights in 2013.
“These flights have been a really humbling experience,” Carnahan said. “It’s hard to find the proper words when you meet various people and see how they’re dealing with adversity.”
Originally from Miami, Carnahan grew up in Toms River, N.J. He joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school, and was assigned as a jet engine mechanic to a base in Maine, which was followed by a tour in Germany.
“I’d always wanted to be a pilot,” Carnahan recalled. “They had an aero club at Spangdahlem Air Base [Germany] and I thought this was a good time to get my pilot’s license. They really have some beautiful flying over there.”
An assignment to Dover came next, but Carnahan decided to try life in the civilian world. He joined the Air Force Reserve, but with a less than favorable economy at the time, soon found himself back on active duty as a flight engineer aboard the C-5 Galaxy.
He moved up the ranks, but didn’t move from Dover, retiring in 1994 as a master sergeant. He now works as chief information officer for National Corporate Research, a New York-based nationwide legal research company.
Carnahan often works out of his home, flying or driving up to Manhattan as needed.
Angel Flight traces its roots to the early 1970s when four private pilots living near Washington, D.C., bought a small aircraft to use for humanitarian purposes. With the increasing need for medical missions, Mercy Medical was founded in 1987. It now operates the Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic program in seven states and the District of Columbia, and partners with sister programs in two additional states.
Carnahan learned of Angel Flight from retired Dover Police officer Reggie Capitan.
“We got to talking one day and Reggie said he’d joined Angel Flight,” Carnahan said. “I researched it, and thought this would be a good way to give back to the community.”
Although based in Dover, Carnahan often flies to other locales to pick up patients. Some missions are flown as relays, taking patients as far as possible, and then meeting another Angel Flight pilot who continues the trip.
Carnahan has had some memorable experiences.
“I picked up one gentleman and his nurse in Boston and took them down to Georgetown. He was very ill, and they didn’t expect him to live beyond the next 60 days,” Carnahan recalled.
Learning the man was a retired U.S. Navy pilot, Carnahan turned over the controls.
“He flew for the next 10 minutes until he started getting tired, but he’d begun to smile and you really could see the difference,” he said. “The nurse and his family told me how much that meant to him.
“To me, it’s the small things in life that make the difference. It felt very good to be a part of that.”
On another flight, where he was to pick up a sick child and a family member in Virginia and only fly as far as New Jersey, Carnahan decided to skip the stop and take the girl to her final destination in Boston.
“I’d read her bio, and felt the stop would be too much for them,” he said. As with all Angel Flight missions, Carnahan bore the cost himself, including his unscheduled overnight stay in Boston. He flew the girl and her family back to Virginia the next day.
Angel Flight pilots like Carnahan are special people, Rhodes said.
“They just love, love, love helping the patients they serve,” she said. “Most of them are pretty soft spoken, they don’t talk a lot about that they do, but they have big hearts and they just can’t seem to do enough for those patients.
“They’re seeing brave people battle terrible diseases and they’re inspired by that,” Rhodes said. “They’re true heroes in every sense of the word.”