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Your Captain Speaking: Supplying the Fight Against COVID-19

On March 30 a cargo flight arrived at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport carrying 130,000 N95 respirators, 1.8 million face masks and gowns, 30 million gloves, and thousands of thermometers

That’s a lot of sorely needed equipment! How’d that happen?

The Boeing 747-400, flown by Atlas Air with the call sign Giant 8836, carried 100,586 kgs of cargo. That’s more than 100 tons of supplies! The main deck and both lower cargo compartments were full. Here’s how it and multiple other flights came together.

The flight basically started in Miami with a crew flying to Anchorage, Alaska, to meet up with another crew there to fly to Incheon, South Korea. Flying into a coronavirus hotspot such as Korea and protecting the crew is a difficult task in itself. Passenger flights to many international destinations are nonexistent, but cargo flights can get exceptions—sometimes. The rules for different countries are a nightmare to track, but that’s part of my job right now.

Another crew that had been in position and rested in Korea flew a short flight from Korea to Shanghai, where it loaded up its important cargo and then continued eight more hours to to Anchorage, where crews changed and then flew on to New York City. Those pilots were a critical aspect of getting this flight done, but so were the people at each of those destinations, as well as the dispatchers and the schedulers, among many others. They’re all essential to making things like this happen. They also are virus-tested just about every time they land.

A group of people I work with at Atlas Air track the regulations for 75 different countries. These seem to change almost every minute. Sometimes the flights are allowed, then we find the crews would be required to go into isolation for 14 days. This would not be acceptable, so we can’t fly to those locations. The decision isn’t based on their country of origin but rather where the pilot’s been in the past two weeks. If they’ve been through Korea, China, or certain other hotspot countries, they may face quarantine. Every person on the crew must be checked, no exceptions.

Here’s the thing: This was an incredibly important flight on March 30, but only one of 123 such flights flown that day. About the same number will occur today, tomorrow, and the next day. We know how important these supplies are to EMS, nurses, doctors, and technicians. We are focused on getting these cargo and passenger flights done in a way as safe and as timely as possible.

Dick Blanchet (ret.), BS, MBA, worked as a paramedic for Abbott EMS in St. Louis and Illinois for more than 22 years. He was also a captain with Atlas Air for 22 years. 


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