BELGRADE — John Marden is propelled by that warm, fuzzy feeling he gets from carrying critically ill patents in his 1980 Cessna Skylane to medical centers in New England.

For nearly a dozen years, the Belgrade resident and co-owner of Marden’s Surplus & Salvage has volunteered his time, aircraft, fuel and operating expenses to Angel Flight Northeast.

“It’s a way to give back and I feel very blessed to be able to afford it and have the knowledge to do it,” he said.

The nonprofit organization has 1,000 volunteer pilots, 50 of them in Maine, who provide air transportation in their private aircrafts.

Flights are free to passengers who are without the financial resources or have other compelling reasons that make it difficult for them to receive medical care. More than half are children with cancer, severe burns or crippling diseases.

Marden, 56, said the rewards outweigh the cost associated with the missions. Many of his flights are particularly memorable, such as the baby with a club foot from Houlton. Marden flew the child and her mother to Massachusetts for treatment six times.

“She was nine months old and didn’t know what was going on,” Marden said. “I flew her and her mother to Westover Air Force Base. The last time she was almost 2. I could see the progression (of the treatment).”

He also thinks of “this lovely lady who lived in Caribou or Presque Isle,” and he flew her seven or eight times to and from Boston.

“Ultimately, she lost her battle with cancer,” Marden said. “We became close enough friends that my wife and I went up to that funeral.”

Angel Flight serves Maine as well as other eastern states, including New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Since the organization was formed in 1996, volunteer pilots have flown 60,000 missions, with 14,586 in Maine. The pilots are required to be licensed and instrument-flight rated and meet or exceed FAA requirements. On average between 75 and 100 missions are scheduled each week.

Keith D’Entremont, who oversees corporate development and community outreach for Angel Flight, said his group never turns away a patient. He said they just have to be medically stable and able to climb in and out of an aircraft.

“Typically those that we fly aren’t able to receive specialized medical care in their local area and have exhausted all possibilities of flying commercially,” D’Entremont said. “As for our pilots, Angel Flight has the highest standards that our volunteer pilots must adhere to before we will allow them to transport our precious cargo, our patients.”

Marden said pilots are always looking for an excuse to take to the sky. For want of something to do, pilots will take a trip to airports just to order lunch at their cafeterias.

He said Angel Flight gave him a better reason to hop on board his plane.

“I saw the brochure. I thought about it and prayed about it, then a priest at church said everyone should be an angel,” he said. “My wife elbowed me and said that should be a message. She’s my inspiration. She encourages me.”

Larry Camerlin, president of Angel Flight, said he is honored to have Marden as one of his volunteer pilots. Since joining the organization in 2001, he said Marden has flown more than 170 missions “ensuring that patients receive the medical care they need.”

“He unselfishly donates his plane, fuel and time as well as his compassion to our patients and their families,” Camerlin said.

Marden said some missions are short, no more than an hour, while others are two to three hours long.

The pilots drop the patients off at an airport, where they are picked up by other volunteers — called Earth Angels — who drive patients between airports and medical facilities.

Marden remembers being called in to fly a young boy and his family to Sebago Lake to attend Camp Sunshine. Their pilot’s plane had mechanical problems and the family ended up stranded in Portland.

“The little boy was drawing pictures during the trip,” he said. “He folded one into an airplane and said it was for me. It’s in the hanger on the top shelf and that’s where it’s staying.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

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