June 5, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the distribution of many products, including blood stem cells, used to treat patients with blood cancers. To help move these life-saving transplants, volunteer pilots joined up with Be The Match.

In March, Be The Match, which connects patients with a donor match for bone marrow or blood stem cell treatment, expected limited commercial flight availability due to COVID-19. The organization contacted the Air Care Alliance, hoping the network of volunteer pilot groups could assist.

The challenge, however, was different than expected. Volunteer couriers ran into difficulties bringing the donor cells into the United States from Canada. New customs restrictions for commercial flights made returning to the U.S. problematic, despite couriers’ holding special waivers.

Enter Air Care Alliance’s network of volunteer pilot organizations.

“Air Care Alliance’s public duty is to serve those in need and our communities,” said Executive Director Kristinia Luke. “Working with Be The Match highlights the ability of volunteer pilot organizations to nimbly meet critical humanitarian needs. We represent a vital ecosystem of service through aviation. These services are especially important in current times.”

Luke said volunteers continue to offer their time and aircraft, despite the added complexity of navigating stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and limited staffing and services at airports.

“Responsibly managing risks and adding new protocols to protect pilots and passengers naturally complicates operations,” she added.

Air Care Alliance Board Member, and Angel Flight Soars volunteer pilot, Mark Hanson flew the first flight in his Eclipse 500.

“Normally, I fly patients in need of medical care so this flight was a little different,” said Hanson. “The international aspect added some complexity, but I was happy to be part of a solution to a problem general aviation could solve.”

About a dozen flights for Be The Match have been completed to date. Angel Flight Soars is now coordinating the blood stem cell flights with help from other Air Care Alliance groups. Member organizations throughout the country have actively participated in the COVID-19 response efforts in many ways, by delivering medical supplies, PPE, test kits and other crucial items.