Delivering the goods: Pilots spend Easter weekend delivering essential healthcare equipment

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | April 17, 2020

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 11 seconds.

Pilots Jay Woo and Gerd Wengler spent Easter weekend flying essential equipment to healthcare workers in Ontario and Quebec. It’s another example of the aviation community uniting against COVID-19.

Most people don’t think of heading to the airport when they’re looking for treasure, especially on Easter weekend.

Volunteer pilot Jay Woo stands on the ramp at Kapuskasing airport after delivering a load of personal protective equipment for the town’s healthcare professionals. Dr. Michael Power Photo

But that’s exactly where Dr. Michael Power, chief of staff at Sensenbrenner Hospital in Kapuskasing, Ont., found himself on April 11. He was waiting for a Cessna 182 that was loaded with a priceless shipment of surgical masks and N95 respirators that would help the northern community fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The single-engine aircraft, owned and flown by commercial pilot Jay Woo, was operating under the auspices of Hope Air, a charity dedicated to transporting sick Canadians in financial need to crucial medical appointments far from home. With COVID-19 restrictions preventing their normal flight activities, some Hope Air pilots in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have set their sights on delivering lifesaving personal protective equipment (PPE) to communities in need.

Woo, an avid aviation enthusiast who got his pilot’s licence 22 years ago, said he has been saving for his own plane ever since, finally realizing his dream last year. He got involved with Hope Air six years ago when he read that the organization needed more pilots. Today, Woo flies about 15 missions a year for the charity, using his plane to bring people from Northern Ontario into the GTA for medical treatment.

The equipment he transported on Easter weekend had been collected by Mobilizing Masks for Health Care Providers, a grassroots organization of physicians and community partners that is spearheading a massive drive to secure donated PPE from non-essential medical sources such as dental offices, construction companies and other facilities not on the front lines of patient care.

Woo’s wife, Wah, volunteers with 105 Gibson Centre in Markham, Ont., a community centre that not only supports the PPE drive but also provides the physical space for sorting and inspecting donations.

When he’s not flying, Woo goes to his day job as president and CEO of CAA Club Group, which includes the automobile association’s South Central Ontario branch. He tasked the group’s 1,100 roadside assistance vehicles to help deliver the masks and other equipment to hospitals within driving distance of the GTA. As of April 14, Mobilizing Masks for Health Care Providers had distributed over 50,000 masks, 7,000 gloves and other PPE to 29 hospitals and community care centres.

But the need is often greatest outside Canada’s large urban centres, as Woo well knows. And while there may still have been Easter snow on the ground in Kapuskasing, the humanitarian pilot received a warm reception from the small town located between Thunder Bay and Temiskaming Shores, Ont.

“The reaction was overwhelming,” he told Skies. “They couldn’t believe the team would collect and deliver this equipment. The need is so dire on the front lines, so for them to receive this at no cost, they were shocked.”

Not only did Powers meet Woo at the Kapuskasing airport, but he seems to have spread the word about the PPE delivery. More than 25 people reached out to Woo directly to thank him for flying the equipment in, while the airport itself gave him a hefty fuel discount and waived his landing fee.

Gerd Wengler heard a radio interview with a Hope Air volunteer pilot 20 years ago and signed up the same day. Hope Air Photo
Gerd Wengler heard a radio interview with a Hope Air volunteer pilot 20 years ago and signed up the same day. Hope Air Photo

After taking off from Kapuskasing, Woo flew south to the Region of Waterloo International Airport, where he dropped off more masks, face shields and N95 respirators for two hospitals in that region. Finally, he returned to his home base at Buttonville Airport in Markham.

Woo wasn’t the only one flying precious equipment on behalf of Hope Air that weekend. His fellow pilot Gerd Wengler also answered the call, flying his own Cessna 182 from Burlington, Ont., to Buttonville, where he and Woo loaded 1,000 face shields into the plane.

Wengler, who has been a pilot for 31 years, has been involved with Hope Air since 2000. One morning, he heard a CBC interview with a Hope Air pilot and signed up that same day.

“That is exactly what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I am a pilot, own an airplane and have an ATPL. Most important, I saw my big chance to contribute to a community-based charity where I could give back to people in need.”

So far, Wengler has flown about 130 missions for Hope Air. He’s always willing to lend a hand on short notice, so it was no problem to fly the face shields out to Montreal on Easter Sunday, where they were gratefully received by seniors’ homes and local hospitals.

He said flying into Montreal-Trudeau airport was a surreal experience. “For the whole flight that I was in contact with Montreal ATC, I did not hear one other aircraft arriving or leaving Dorval. It was unbelievable. It was empty. I was a few miles out and they cleared me to land.”

Wengler’s plane was loaded up with 1,000 protective face shields that were destined for Montreal. Hope Air Photo

Wengler taxied up to the Skyservice FBO, met his contact and helped unload the face shields. Skyservice waived the handling fee and he was rolling out within 10 minutes.

Both Woo and Wengler – who both serve on the Hope Air board of directors in addition to flying for the charity – are standing by to deliver more essential PPE to healthcare providers in northern Ontario. When the need arises, they’ll be ready.

“That is exactly how Hope Air operates,” said Wengler. “We have universal health care in Canada and we appreciate this, but it’s only good if you can get to the place of medical treatment. If you can’t get there, it’s no good. That is exactly the gap that Hope Air tries to fill.”

Likewise, PPE in Toronto doesn’t help Canadians living in northern communities. But if you can bridge that gap, you’re in business.

Woo brushes off any praise for organizing the delivery flights, simply saying that everyone is doing what they can.

“The more we can all do together, the faster we can beat this virus and get back to normal life.”

Do you have access to unused personal protective equipment (PPE), including surgical masks, face shields, gloves and N95 respirators? The need is great. If you can spare them, please contact Mobilizing Masks for Health Care Providers. The organization also gratefully accepts cash donations.

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