The general aviation industry has long served as a lifeline to people and communities in crisis. Previously, that spirit of service predominantly showed itself during natural disaster relief missions. But today, faced with the novel coronavirus crisis, aviation leaders and businesses have been quick to step up once again. Some of the biggest examples can be found in the manufacturing effort.
As it became apparent the healthcare industry faced an extreme shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, several general aviation manufacturers joined the coalition across the country to engineer and produce custom components. I reached out to a few of the manufacturers to gather more specifics about their efforts:
Cirrus Aircraft – “We started by looking at what actions we could take to help immediately – with basic personal protection equipment (PPE) supplies. Our first round of donations, including gloves, hand sanitizer and lab gear was dropped off to local hospitals in Duluth. We also put our production and product development teams to work building real solutions for one of the most urgent problems facing the medical community – face masks and respirators. Our experimental team has since assembled 31,500 face shields for the local medical community.
Of even greater need are Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) – battery-powered blowers that provide positive airflow through a filter to a hood that protects healthcare workers from contaminated air. Our team, along with local partner Frost River Trading, quickly got to work prototyping equipment to meet this need, with 850 hood and coupler assemblies. And at the heart of creating full PAPR units, is a project to recreate the blower units available at area hospitals, which are in short supply. Our engineers have designed, prototyped and tested a replacement assembly using computer aided design (CAD) software as well as 3D printing. The design our team came up with costs a fraction of the typical unit supplied to hospitals.”
Piper Aircraft – “At the end of March, Piper designed a prototype face shield with off-the shelf materials. With approval of the prototype, the team set out to source the necessary materials from wholesale suppliers and create a manufacturing line within the Piper factory. While the initial goal was to make a few thousand face shields for our local hospital, the demand quickly grew from 2,000 to 50,000, and today, we have orders for over 100,000 face shields with 34,000 already delivered throughout the United States.
Additionally, our local hospital requested our support in making intubation boxes for COVID patients. We were able to design, build and deliver the boxes within three days. Beyond the face shields and intubation boxes, our interior shop produced face masks for every employee to help protect them while working. We sourced fabric from the local Joanne’s Fabric store, which opened their doors just for us so that we could make enough face masks for 1,000 employees.”
Textron Aviation – “While goggles, masks, gowns and gloves are critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical providers, plastic face shields are also used in addition to these items to protect the entire face. Textron Aviation is collaborating with Wichita State University (WSU) to manufacture face shields from optically-clear PET film. First, WSU and Textron Aviation tested and adapted the open source design, then the Process Engineering team began production using the company’s large Gerber cutter.
In response to the new CDC recommendation that people wear cloth or fabric face coverings when entering public spaces, the company is also sourcing fabric and sewing thousands of cloth face masks for its employees and health professionals. Although not medical grade, these masks can be laundered and reused, and will free up the more effective N95 respirators and surgical masks for the medical professionals and first responders who need them most.”
Additional aviation companies donating time and resources include Boeing, Gulfstream, Daher Aircraft, Pipistrel, AvFuel and Tamarack Aerospace (and I am surely missing others).
I also spoke to Appareo Systems, the makers of Stratus aviation products. Though a smaller sized tech company, the team currently has more than 30 people dedicated to the manufacturing of emergency ventilators for its home state of North Dakota. Operating three shifts seven days a week, the company built more than 1,000 emergency ventilators in the first 10 days of production.
“We have received amazing support from our supplier network – seeing unreal turn times to deliver products,” said April Steffan, a spokesperson for Appareo. “For example, one supplier drove 22 hours from North Carolina to North Dakota to deliver 3,000 clamps. We have also seen our own employees going above and beyond. One employee flew his personal aircraft to pick up some essential parts in Minnesota.”
Charitable aviation organizations such as Angel Flight and NBAA’s HERO program have also pivoted normal operations to accommodate the delivery of critical supplies. One of our readers, Kirk Walters, reached out to me with his own story.
“Just recently we were called into service by the Governor of Vermont under the Angel Flight Northeast umbrella to address a very pressing need in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis,” said Walters. “To bridge a testing analysis gap, we organized and flew a daily shuttle from Burlington (KBTV) to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (KRST) for 11 consecutive days. Seven of these flights were done in our Conquest 441 and the balance were flown in a Lear 60.”
Kirk and fellow pilots Martti Matheson and Damien Henry ultimately flew 21,400 miles over 22 legs and transported more than 5,000 COVID-19 tests.
And let us not forget the associations that continue to vie for and protect the general aviation industry in Washington, D.C. We had the privilege of interviewing AOPA President Mark Baker for this month’s Five on the Fly. He offers valuable insight into the current happenings and effects of the virus on the aviation industry.
I hope the above demonstrates how many encouraging examples of hope and compassion can be found across our communities. We all need stories of positivity, and once again, our incredible industry is up for the task.