The sky’s the limit for Palo Alto philanthropist

Len Lehmann thinks like a cabdriver. He can tell which passengers want to talk and which don’t.

Lehmann’s cab, however, travels at 180 mph and is often airborne. Not so different from many Manhattan cabbies, but Lehmann’s taxi is white and red. With a propeller.

The Palo Alto engineer, philanthropist and mainstay of the South Bay Jewish community is also a pilot and an active participant in Angel Flight, which provides free trips to the needy for hospital treatment.

So, at least once a month Lehmann pilots a Cirrus SR 20 into locales such as Bakersfield, rural Oregon or Nevada to give a lift to a patient in need. Most recently, he flew a 13-year-old Las Vegas girl to Stanford Hospital, for a follow-up after a kidney transplant.

For Lehmann, it’s a chance to take a patient’s mind off of his or her troubles with a stunning view of the Monterey coast, Santa Cruz, the Mojave Desert or even Utah’s salt flats from 9,000 feet. Or, if they’d prefer, he just keeps quiet and ferries them to the hospital.

“If they have to come to the hospital every month, I’m sure their preference would be to hop on Southwest Airlines. It’s often a long flight for these patients, and it’s certainly not as comfortable as an airliner,” said Lehmann, 50.

“But they put up with it because getting the very best health care is important to them. And I’m so pleased that they’re taking the initiative and seeking out the health care at Stanford.”

When he’s landed the plane, Lehmann usually hops in the car and gives his patients a lift. That’s not required for pilots, but “it’s so obviously the right thing to do.”

And, to this point, none of the patients Lehmann has flown in his three years with Angel Flight has suffered a panic attack about flying in a Buddy Holly plane. Lehmann notes that his craft is rather new, and even comes equipped with a giant parachute large enough for the whole plane.

Airports have been a recurring theme in Lehmann’s life. After earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford in 1979, he was recruited by some of his buddies to join their medical imaging business (one of his professors used to examine his own X-rays and quip “This is the heartless Bill Brody” or “This is the spineless Bill Brody”).

The technology never really took off in the medical field, but it is currently used in baggage screening.

When the Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth member and father of three isn’t flying around or working, he’s deeply involved with the South Bay’s many Jewish day schools and Kehillah Jewish High School of Silicon Valley. He will be the guest of honor at Kehillah’s fund-raising dinner on May 19.

Lehmann notes with a laugh that he works “flexible hours” and has a “short attention span,” which allows him to keep so many poles in the water.

And, he notes, he’s far from the only South Bay Jewish pilot. Local Jewish pilots sometimes informally meet to eat and fly, and, after reading the j. story about Raphael Lapin, a rabbi and pilot, Lehmann contacted him. The two flew down to Paso Robles for lunch.

“He’s a great guy,” said Lehmann with a laugh.

“And he loves to fly.”

Len Lehmann will be honored at a dinner 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at the Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. Information: (408) 984-3600. Angel Flight information: (888) 4-AN-ANGEL or www.angelflight.org.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.