Local

Volunteer pilots help essential workers get to their jobs while the 101 is closed

A volunteer pilot flew emergency room doctor Ross Levin from his work in Ventura to his home in Santa Barbara.
A volunteer pilot flew emergency room doctor Ross Levin from his work in Ventura to his home in Santa Barbara.
Ross Levin

Listen to story

00:56
Download this story 0.0MB

Parts of the 101 connecting Santa Barbara and Ventura are still closed after last week's mudslides, which means commuters traveling between nearby towns like Oxnard, Santa Paula, Camarillo, and Santa Barbara are having to find creative ways to get to and from work.

Some are hopping on ferries, but the water can be choppy and rides can be long. Others are filing onto crowded Amtrak trains.

"You can take the I-5. It might take about five hours. You can take a boat or a train," explained emergency room doctor Ross Levin. "Those have limited hours which are hard for medical professionals."

Dr. Levin said that he will fly back to Ventura for work on Saturday. Depending on when the 101 Freeway reopens, he will either drive or fly back home after that.
Dr. Levin said that he will fly back to Ventura for work on Saturday. Depending on when the 101 Freeway reopens, he will either drive or fly back home after that.
Carla Javier/KPCC

So this week, to get to and from the hospital in Ventura where he works, he hopped into a private plane. 

He didn’t have to pay for the flight, though.

The pilot who flew him is one of about 50 who have volunteered their time and their planes to help workers with critical jobs like his – in medicine, emergency response, or infrastructure – get in and out of town. 

The community group Thomas Fire Help started pairing passengers with pilots last Friday. 

"We didn't sit around and say 'We're going to start an airline,'" said Chris Collier, who's part of the group. 

But that's kind of what happened.

Dr. Ross Levin said that the flight from Oxnard to Goleta took less than an hour.
Dr. Ross Levin said that the flight from Oxnard to Goleta took less than an hour.
Ross Levin

Normally, Collier works as a public affairs and political consultant, but ever since the Thomas Fire, he has been working with other volunteers to help connect people in need with resources.

"So we said, 'what if we flew people?' Just threw it out there, never having done this before," Collier said.  They recruited 50 pilots in 24 hours. 

He and another volunteer coordinated the transportation effort from his Ventura office.

"You can imagine, Emily and I sitting in my company's conference room with a giant white board, two laptops and a couple cell phones trying to figure out what the hell we were doing," Collier remembered.

Levin said he had to fly, because driving around would take around five hours.
Levin said he had to fly, because driving around would take around five hours.
Ross Levin

 

Collier said so far, they've organized over 70 flights. The passengers have included doctors like Levin, nurses, surgical technicians–and even patients.

The number of volunteer pilots, and passengers in need of a ride, got so big, they're now working with a Santa Monica based nonprofit that specializes in this work, Angel Flight West. 

As for Dr. Levin, he’s going to need another flight. He has to be back at work in Ventura on Saturday.

Collier said Thomas Fire Help will continue to help Angel Flight West pair people in need of transport with pilots who are willing to take them until the 101 reopens.

"Matching help to need, that's kind of our slogan in our Thomas Fire help world," he said.