Since March 24, 634 people in southwestern Utah have died of COVID-19, and thankfully in recent weeks deaths and cases have declined rapidly. But for people who knew any of the 634 people who died, they know that these deaths are not just a statistic and are still affected by the disease.

Such is the case of St. George resident Nathan Parnham, who watched his best friend die of the disease in October 2021.

“COVID did not discriminate, especially this Delta variant,” Parnham said.

His friend, Brian Almazan, was only 32 when he died. Almazan and Parnham shared a passion for aviation, Almazan was the CEO of Endeavor Jet International – which facilitates charter flights and the sale of aircraft parts – while Parnham is a certified ground instructor and contract pilot with his own plane.

Nathan Parnham's late best friend Brian Almazan standing outside an airpalne.

Parnham says losing his friend was a difficult experience, but one that many people have gone through over the past two years of the pandemic. Even though COVID-19 has claimed hundreds of southern Utahns and millions around the world, it was not the only disease to affect people in the past two years and he wanted to do something to help people. .

“I was trying to think of what I could do to use this plane to make someone else’s life better,” Parnham said.

So Parnham decided to use his passion for aviation to help out and tries flying for Angel Flight West. This organization is a nonprofit volunteer matchmaking program that coordinates flights for “compelling human needs,” according to John Olson, executive director of Angel Flight West.

These charitable purposes include airlifting people who are undergoing specialized medical treatment but who live far from treatment centers to get to their appointments and bringing medical supplies to remote areas of the country and helping to any charity that needs cheap transportation, Olson said.

Parnham knows Angel Flight’s services can make a big difference to people who have been going through grueling medical treatments since he saw his mother go through cancer treatment when he was a teenager.

“It was quite painful watching her go through chemotherapy and four-hour infusions,” he said.

His mother overcame his cancer, but Parnham said he realized that people undergoing intense medical treatment, especially in rural areas, could not endure hour-long car journeys and the airplane might be a better travel option.

Olson says Angel Flight really relies on its volunteer pilots — who cover their flight costs, like fuel, out of their own pockets — to operate.

“They are very generous. It’s not cheap to fly a plane,” Olson said.

It’s something Parnham is quite familiar with. He said fuel alone for planes can cost upwards of $400 for an hour, and updating parts is also expensive. So Parnham launched a GoFundMe page with a goal of $5,000 to ensure his Cessna 310 meets Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight standards so he can use his personal plane to participate in Angel Flight West.

Nathan Parnham's Cessna 310 sitting on an airfield.

Parnham also wants to match charity and aviation since as a child he was able to fly through the Young Eagles program which was huge for the self-proclaimed aviation nerd. He said the pilot who flew him that day left a big impression and they are still in touch.

“That theft was money out of his pocket,” Parnham said. “Someone got me hooked on aviation through a charity flight. That’s why I want to use my plane now [for Angel Flight].”

Due to FAA restrictions on how different types of flights can be funded, Parnham is only permitted to raise funds for the maintenance of his aircraft and cannot solicit funds for fuel costs for Angel. FlightWest. Olson says that’s because Angel flights are considered personal flights and are subject to lighter regulations than charter flights or commercial flights.

“I could probably afford to make the plane airworthy and ready to go, so I won’t have the money left to do an Angel Flight,” Parnham said.

Due to these rules, Parnham plans to use the funds raised only for the maintenance of his plane and if there are any funds left after his plane goes through the FAA inspection process, they will be used for costs. future. By the end of March, Parnham was $3,000 short of his $5,000 goal, hoping he could raise the rest of the funds by the end of the month so he could start flying.

Nathan Parnham's Cessna 310 still needs some repairs before it can be FAA approved to fly.

Olson says the need for Angel Flight is greater than ever due to the “total disruption” the pandemic has caused to the medical field. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Another one study from the American Cancer Society Journals indicates that these missed screenings will lead to delayed diagnoses and poorer outcomes.

“People are still sick, people still have significant illnesses and diseases. But they tried, they did a great job of carrying it over,” Olson said. “However, it only goes so far, so a lot of people have yet to get there. [to their appointments].”

Olson says Angel Flight West — which covers 13 states — typically flies about 5,000 flights a year. Over the past two years, that number has dropped slightly as many pilots did not want to potentially infect people in need of medical treatment during the pandemic. He notes that since COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available, more and more pilots are coming back to fly people to medical appointments.

Olson said even with a reduction in its volunteer pilots, Angel Flight has turned to other transportation missions, including sending PPE to Native American reservations and firefighters during the tumultuous 2021 wildfire season. These types of flights are still needed even as demand for patient transportation increases as pandemic restrictions ease across the country, says Olson, Angel Flight is able to coordinate more flights and “help even more.” .

Parnham says he’s willing to help out whenever he can to help people in need of transportation and thinks if Almazan were around he’d be just as willing to support Angel Flight.

“He would be sitting here helping, like even doing everything in his power to make sure it works exactly the way we planned,” Parnham said.

Sean Hemmersmeier covers local government, growth and development in Southwestern Utah. Follow on Twitter @seanhemmers34. Our work depends on subscribers, so if you want more coverage on these issues, you can subscribe here: