LIVERMORE — Robert Tucknott has always enjoyed the freedom of flight, but the Pleasanton man could never have imagined he would be the only person flying in California on Sept. 11, 2001.
Tucknott, organizer of the Northern California chapter of Angel Flight West — a nonprofit that arranges free flights for people with serious medical conditions who cannot afford to take commercial flights — was tapped to fly a shipment of blood from Oakland International Airport to Lindbergh Field in San Diego just hours after the terrorist attacks.
"It was an experience that not many pilots get," Tucknott said.
The blood had been donated that day in Oakland by those who wanted to help out after hijacked planes crashed in New York City; Arlington, Va.; and Shanksville, Pa. But before the blood could be used to help those in the East, it had to be tested in San Diego.
The Angel Flight West medical rescue group and Tucknott were asked to fly the blood to San Diego. Within hours, Tucknott received clearance to take off from Oakland International. In his single-engine Cessna Skylane, Tucknott was the only private pilot in the air that night.
"I likened it to 'The Twilight Zone'," Tucknott said. "There was no communication on the radio and no other airplanes around."
Tucknott and members of other nonprofit aviation groups will be on hand from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the 13th annual Livermore Airport Open House. The free community event will feature several experimental and homebuilt aircraft, as well as military planes and aerobatic aircraft.
Having been part of Angel Flight for more than 15 years, Tucknott said he has had his share of heartwarming stories, but being the only one in the air that night was unique.
"I was able to fly over LAX and see rows of grounded airplanes on the runways, just sitting there. Talking to the air-traffic controllers in Southern California was eerie because normally you can't talk to them," Tucknott said.
While talking to controllers, Tucknott discovered he was not quite alone in the air that night. He was escorted down the California coast by two F-14 fighter jets that were authorized to shoot Tucknott's plane down if he deviated from his flight plan.
"It's a good thing they didn't take me out," he said.
Tucknott got involved with Angel Flight West after a Northern California Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association meeting in San Jose. He came upon Angel Flight and saw an opportunity to help others.
"I read the flier and thought, 'This sounds like something I would like to do'," he said.
Although there was an Angel Flight office in Santa Monica, which is the headquarters for the Angel Flight West organization, there was no Northern California wing. Soon after, Tucknott created and recruited pilots to join the Northern California branch.
Currently there are 340 pilots in the Northern California chapter and 25 active pilots at Livermore Municipal Airport who volunteer for Angel Flight.
"We have the most active chapter in the country, where we take children and adults to and from the Bay Area," Tucknott said. "Last year I flew 57 missions. When I first started flying 35 years ago, the thought of doing something like this never crossed my mind. I've got to be a part of some heartwarming stories now and have flown kids who have recovered, flown single moms from remote locations and done things that have helped a lot of people."
Angel Flight volunteers pay for their own expenses, such as fuel and food.
Steve Willens of Pleasanton does 20 to 30 Angel Flights a year and often flies his Pilatus PC 12 to remote locations to pick up patients.
"I often fly to Nevada and bring kids back down to Children's Hospital Oakland," he said. "My plane can get to higher elevations and I can get over the Sierra Nevada." Willens joined Angel Flight six years ago after seeing a flier and thought it would be a good way to use his love of flying for a good cause. Willens said he enjoys flying kids each summer to camps near Yosemite National Park, where those who are burn victims or have life-threatening illnesses stay at a camp with kids who have similar problems.
"It's great seeing them go through this and being around kids who are having the same problems. It really makes them feel better," he said.