Little Wings, big heart

When young children require hospital treatment he tyranny of distance can make an already difficult time for families even more stressful. NSW-based Little Wings seeks to ease some of these difficulties through the astute application of aviation in a very professional manner.

Over five years Little Wings has completed over 1,250 flights, with more than 300 flights taking place over the past year. The operation continues to grow at a measured rate in keeping with its focus on “doing it right”, as chief executive officer Richelle Koller describes it.

And in the wake of a recent donation, Little Wings’ future may see it assisting even more families in need.

Taking flight

Founded in 2012, Little Wings emerged from a need identified in the oncology unit of Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, where children with cancer are treated. For children and their families who lived some distance from Sydney, travel was not easy. For some, the time between rounds of treatment was not long enough to justify returning home, while others with compromised immune systems were unable to travel by public transport due to the risk of infection.

With its lone Piper Malibu Mirage, Little Wings has been able to bridge that gap, flying patients and their families to the city where a journey by road would take greater than three hours.

A non-emergency service, Little Wings seeks to lessen the time, fatigue and financial burden associated with long distance travel and consequently improve the child’s quality of life, recovery process and family cohesiveness.

After the single-engined Malibu Mirage was made available to the charity the operation grew to encompass not just Westmead but the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick and Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital, with its service available to children and their families with any serious and chronic illness.

Arrangement between Little Wings and the hospitals are formalised within memorandums of understanding so that both entities are working towards a common objective with an appreciation of the other’s role. And only the hospitals can refer a patient’s case to Little Wings, ensuring that behind every flight there is a process confirming that a genuine need exists and priorities are respected.

The pressurised Malibu is fitted with a weather radar, while inside the air conditioned cabin four passengers can be seated in club seating arrangement, while its drop-down air-stair affords easy access and egress.

Doing it right

Based at Bankstown Airport, Little Wings offers the air of simplicity and professionalism that one would hope to find in any non-profit organisation. The staff wear uniform shirts bearing the charity’s logo, while the office that occupies the corner of the hangar is clean and efficient. A bench lines one wall where the pilot attends to flight planning and the operations manager the other aspects of the operation. There is no sense of excess and the strength lies in the organisation’s culture.

Little Wings utilises a small group of five volunteer pilots with Adam Holt of Salt Air Services serving in a check and training capacity. Critically, all pilots hold commercial licences and are instrument-rated with Little Wings operating its service under instrument flight rules (IFR).

With such a small, centralised team, the organisation is able to maintain genuine quality control with regular flight reviews of their crew. Operating the flights with these additional requirements provides an additional level of expertise and experience, but also offers a level of defence against the ever-present variable, the weather (although the weather can never be fully countered, regardless of the size of the operation or the aeroplane).

A recent flight departure was postponed to the following morning when the pilot experienced severe turbulence inbound to the destination and decided against making the return flight immediately. Koller fully supported the pilot’s decision emphasising that the purpose of the service is to, “…take the stress of travel away from the families, allowing them to focus on the kids,” further adding, “…and safety is paramount”.

It is obvious that the culture of safety is shared and promoted from the top down within Little Wings.

The Malibu has the ability to cruise in the flight levels with a planned true air speed of 210kt. As required, a twin-engined Beechcraft B58 Baron is also utilised on a cross-hire basis when the Malibu is unavailable and the situation dictates.

And air transport is not the sole concern of Little Wings as the flights are supported by an impressive, modern fleet of Hyundai iMax and Santa Fe vehicles, generously provided by ‘Hyundai Help for Kids’ and driven by 20 volunteer drivers.

From door-to-door, the service falls under the Little Wings banner and is conducted using modern equipment.

“The organisation is small at this stage, but that also allows us to keep it tight,” Koller says.

With a strong accounting background in auditing, taxation and financial management as well as having held the role of director with a major accounting firm, Koller is well situated to oversee the financial efficiency of this non-profit organisation.

And as Little Wings is a tightly-run operation, there is room for growth, with a $300,000 donation from the Commonwealth Bank Staff Community Fund allowing the purchase of its own aircraft. After choosing Little Wings from a list of eligible charities, Commonwealth Bank staff made a salary-sacrifice from each pay-packet towards Little Wings in a gesture that was matched dollar for dollar by their employer.

With these funds available, the organisation set about an in-depth analysis to select a replacement for the Piper Malibu and the decision was reached to acquire a B58 Baron, similar to the aircraft that has been used in a relief capacity.

The Baron won out “due to its being twin-engined, possessing a greater range, a simplicity in its systems and economical to support,” Koller explains.

While there is still some time before the Malibu is retired, the plan is for the Baron to enter service before the end of the current financial year.

Owning the aircraft outright is a significant element in the successful Little Wings model, not only in financial terms, but in giving direct oversight and control of the aeroplane’s ongoing maintenance and serviceability. However, fuel and maintenance remain the organisation’s greatest cost and it is the generosity of the community and sponsors that covers this and allows the aircraft to continue flying.

Looking ahead

Koller sees Little Wings’ immediate goal as meeting demand within NSW as some hospital referrals are currently being rejected due to a lack of funding. However, she does recognise the potential of the Little Wings model to expand beyond NSW’s borders. But for the moment, the strength undoubtedly lies on the measured foundations that have been laid so far.

It is an indication of the hospitals’ satisfaction with the service that the referrals continue to grow and undoubtedly a source of frustration that the ability to meet the need is limited by funding.

There is also little doubt that there are many deserving charities in need of assistance in this day and age. Still, the opportunity to help our youngest citizens and their families in the toughest of circumstances will always strike a chord within us. Little Wings has the welfare of these families at the core of its mission, not only in providing flights for them, but in the way that it does so.

With the generosity of community support, sponsors and volunteers it is operating a non-profit aviation operation with a degree of professionalism that is the envy of a number of commercial undertakings. It is a relatively young, small and dynamic charity, that after five years is aiming to truly spread its wings to even more families while maintaining the culture that has been built to date. It is a goal to be admired.

If you would like to contribute to this worthy cause, visit the Little Wings website here.

This feature story first appeared in the January-February issue of Australian Aviation, on sale on January 4.