By Steve Hubrecht

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The provincial government recently announced funding for Angel Flight East Kootenay (AFEK), which will help keep the volunteer-operated nonprofit organization stay aloft for the next few years. But AFEK saw demand for its services soar last year, and is looking for more volunteer pilots to join its team.

AFEK helps East Kootenay residents (including those from the Columbia Valley) access necessary but non-emergency medical care in Kelowna by flying them to the Okanagan city, sparing them the absurdly long drive times and considerable travel and accommodation costs such trips once entailed. The group took wing more than four years ago in April 2019 and initially consisted entirely of volunteer pilots using their own private aircraft to fly patients from the region’s small airports to Kelowna and back.

Last week the B.C. Ministry of Health outlined that it will give a total of $300,000 to AFEK over the next two years.

“We are tremendously grateful,” AFEK founder Brent Bidston told the Pioneer. “It’s also uplifting that the province recognizes what we are doing and is willing to formally support us.”

In late 2021 AFEK secured enough funding that it was able to purchase its own, larger aircraft (a Cessna 414A)  instead of relying on volunteer pilots to use their own small planes. The Cessna is kept at the Cranbrook airport and means AFEK can now operate more consistently, rarely having to cancel flights due to variable weather. As a result the number of people AFEK flies each year has taken off.

In AFEK’s first partial year of operation in 2019, it flew 15 patients to and from Kelowna. In 2020 — the organization’s first full year of operation — that figure leapt to 100. The next year, in 2021, it was 110. Then in 2022, the first full year with the Cessna, AFEK flew 570 patients to and from Kelowna, operating three days a week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday).

There are currently four volunteer pilots on the AFEK team, and aside from Bidston (who is a retired airline captain) all work full-time jobs and consequently have limited availability.

“So we are looking for more pilots,” said Bidston.

Potential pilots need to have a multi-engine rating and an instrument rating.

AFEK board chair (and Columbia Valley resident) Pete Bourke told the Pioneer “we are extremely grateful for the provincial support. This is a critical service for the residents of the East Kootenay and the funding will help it continue for at least a couple more years.”

Bidston outlined that the $300,000 will be spent on maintenance, upgrades and operational costs associated with the Cessna.

The purchase of the 414A in 2021 was made possible by a five-year funding commitment for a total of $500,000 from the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK).

The funding from the RDEK and province is significant and helps “future proof” the nonprofit, but AFEK also faces significant operating costs, explained Bourke. Bidston noted that as use of the AFEK service increases, so too do the organization’s operating costs.

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok said he’s grateful for the new funding, but noted that  “we can’t ignore the fact that this funding is a mere Band-Aid solution to the much deeper problem of underfunded and understaffed health care facilities in our communities. We need more resources and better access to care, and we need them now.”  Clovechok later added,  “we can’t rely on volunteers and charity to solve the health care crisis in our communities.”

Both Bourke and Clovechok expressed deep appreciation to Bidston, his wife Janet and the other AFEK volunteers.

To volunteer with AFEK, donate to its efforts, use its services, or just learn more about the group visit