Civil Air Patrol
Volunteers with the U.S. Civil Air Patrol have flown hundreds of missions, including transporting COVID test equipment and samples. (Photo: Civil Air Patrol)

Bizav Community Digs Deep in COVID Humanitarian Response

Despite facing an existential threat from the pandemic, many companies continue to help those in greater need.

In the maelstrom of COVID-19’s impact on the business aviation sector, it has been hard to find space to reflect on the personal toll that the pandemic has taken on those working in the industry, and also on their extraordinary response to this crisis. Across the industry, companies and individuals have tapped two important reserves that have sustained them in previous times of hardship: self-belief and a desire to demonstrate aviation’s special ability to support those in dire need even when, or perhaps especially when, times are exceptionally tough.

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This important article is a finalist in the 2021 Folio Eddies Awards competition.

Many of business aviation’s humanitarian efforts have happened under the radar, and in many cases, those responsible prefer to keep it that way. But it’s right to acknowledge some of the inspiring initiatives taken by the industry, even if what follows is just a selective cross-section of episodes in which this sector of aviation has been a force for good. What makes much of this all the more remarkable is that these above-and-beyond efforts were being made at a time when the industry faced an existential crisis, with business and personal travel all but completely suspended for weeks on end.

In the early stages of the COVID crisis, the scramble for medical supplies and equipment was paramount, and several business aircraft operators and support providers rose to the challenge. Aircraft were dispatched to move key personnel and supplies to where they were needed, and multiple manufacturers rapidly shifted gears to produce equipment that was far removed from their usual output. 

As scheduled airline service started to evaporate, business aircraft, and especially those in charter fleets, were increasingly called into service to repatriate those displaced by travel restrictions and also COVID patients. In some cases, cabins had to be rapidly reconfigured and disinfected to take account of the medical risks, and this required the use of new technology such as the Epishuttle patient isolation pod. Emergency medical flight providers such as Germany’s DFT Luftrettung have installed this device, which allows patients to be connected to a ventilator while in the airtight space.

Early in the crisis, the National Business Aviation Association worked in tandem with the American Hospital Association to establish a way for first responders to request emergency flights from operators offering transportation via the industry group's HERO database. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Business Aviation Association established a COVID resource center to help coordinate the industry's response to rapidly shifting needs.

In late March, a pair of long-range NetJets Bombardier Global 6000s flew from the U.S. to Nanjing in China to collect N95 masks and other items needed by the New York–based Mount Sinai Medical System. The operation, which was supported by Goldman Sachs, involved complex approval processes with Chinese officials, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.

In a similar initiative, the New England Patriots football team’s Boeing 767 was pressed into service for another operation to bring one million masks from Shenzhen in China to healthcare workers in Massachusetts. In this instance, Universal Weather & Aviation provided flight and logistics support. 

To support French government efforts to guard against the COVID outbreak, Dassault Aviation provided a Falcon 8X and a Falcon 900 to fly medical teams and supplies to small airports around France as part of Operation Resilience. The aircraft have been operated out of Paris Le Bourget Airport by Dassault Falcon Service.

VistaJet also scrambled its fleet of Global and Challenger 350 aircraft to provide complimentary empty-leg flights to enable medical personnel and health experts to move around the world in COVID relief efforts. The operator received technical support from Control Risks, Osprey, and MedAire in keeping the flights safe. Subsidiary company XO also made private lift available to carry medical supplies to New York City at the height of the first wave of infections.

Meanwhile, manufacturers including Honeywell, Textron Aviation, Embraer, Piper, CAE, Universal Avionics, Cirrus Aircraft, and Husky Corp. adapted their facilities to produce items such as face masks and ventilators. Safe Flight Instrument provided equipment that enabled a single ventilator to be used by four patients simultaneously. Gulfstream worked with two General Dynamics sister companies to use 3D printers to produce adapters for a clinical trial to see whether CPAP/BiPAP machines could be converted to ventilators.

Back in early April 2020, private flight provider Wheels Up teamed up with hunger-relief organization Feeding America and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to launch an initiative called Meals Up with the aim of supplying 10 million meals for people facing hunger in the economic fallout from COVID. By mid-September, the project had raised the equivalent of 47 million meals for Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks across the U.S.

To mark the achievement, Textron Aviation paid to repaint one of Wheels Up’s Beechcraft 350i twin turboprops in a special orange livery. The aircraft manufacturer also made a financial donation to cover the cost of another 500,000 meals.

Another organization putting Textron aircraft to good use is the U.S. Civil Air Patrol (CAP), which has harnessed its substantial fleet of Cessna aircraft to perform missions such as delivering COVID samples to laboratories for testing, as well as personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and ventilators to more remote locations.

As of early October, 527 aircraft from the CAP fleet had logged almost 2,200 flight hours in COVID relief operations that delivered more than six million meals, collected almost 900 units of blood, and delivered almost 900,000 pounds of bulk food and meals. The volunteer operation has also transported around 2.3 million masks, more than 22,000 COVID test kits, and just under 100,000 test samples.

According to Randy Bolinger, CAP’s chief of marketing and strategic communications, the COVID campaign has been the group’s largest mobilization since World War II.

The CAP is part of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and was formed early in 1941 to mobilize America’s civilian aviation resources as an element of the national defense effort. Today, its volunteers make extensive use of aircraft in support of CAP’s mission to support communities with emergency response. For the COVID relief efforts, it has a pool of around 2,400 pilots, more than 2,800 observers, and almost 36,000 volunteers.

Texas-based Active Deployment Systems (ADS) has been putting its Cessna Citation CJ2+ to good use to support COVID-19 response efforts in at least half a dozen U.S. states. The company provides temporary infrastructure support, mainly under contract from state and federal agencies.

As in previous disaster-relief efforts, such as after Hurricane Katrina, ADS responders have been flying in to install temporary infrastructure for medical and community support operations. The CJ2+ allowed its teams to move around quickly and efficiently even at the height of COVID travel restrictions.

“Hospital beds can’t be set up without restrooms, generators, fuel and showers and everything else,” explained ADS president and CEO Simon Elliott. “With COVID-19, it’s as if a hurricane has hit 50 states. Normally, it’s just two or three. From a disaster standpoint, [with an aircraft] I can move people anywhere and anytime I need almost immediately and that’s critical in this current marketplace.”

COVID presented an exceptional challenge to the Corporate Angel Network (CAN), which for many years has harnessed complimentary rides on supporters’ private aircraft to transport cancer patients and their families. Despite the obvious difficulty of guarding against the spread of COVID infection, CAN partner operators have continued to provide lift and, in some cases, have arranged dedicated flights to do so.

Similarly, Patient Airlift Services (PALS), which also arranges free flights for those needing medical care who would be unable to travel via airline, has continued to operate. In April, Joe Howley, cofounder of PALS and a frequent flier of PALS clients, took delivery of a new Embraer Phenom 300E, fitted with the new Bossa Nova cabin interior.

Even at a time when business aviation’s bottom line has been hard hit by the steep decline in revenue, many companies have continued to reach into their pockets to help others. For example, aircraft maintenance program provider JSSI has made several donations to humanitarian causes during the pandemic. These include $40,000 to the Feeding America program, $100,000 to Wheels Up’s Meals Up campaign, and $6,000 to the Global Food Network. They come on top of its other recent contributions to relief efforts for the forest fires in Australia earlier this year and some local causes in Ohio.

In response to the hardship facing many companies during the ongoing crisis and especially smaller operators, some organizations have shown willingness to help out with support or special offers. For example, back in March, the Luxaviation Group launched its European Business Aviation Solidarity Initiative to help others weather the crisis by providing resources to help keep their clients and assets safe. The company gave other firms access to the purchasing power and administrative resources of its procurement department, providing the same pricing and terms it enjoys from its suppliers based on its high-volume aircraft charter and management operation. It helped 15 competitors through the program.