Oct. 26, 2020

NBAA was privileged recently to take part in the Spirit of Liberty Foundation’s “America’s Operation Thank You: Relay in the Sky,” a tribute to healthcare professionals and first responders, which was designed as a way for the general aviation community to honor those who have been putting their lives on the line to care for others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Saturday, Oct. 24, Alex Gertsen, the association’s director of airports and ground infrastructure, flew the symbolic 3-foot-tall torch from Cleveland (OH) Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL) to Buffalo (NY) Niagara International Airport (BUF), and took part in ceremonies honoring healthcare workers in both cities.

“It’s very special [to be recognized],” said Dr. Robert Bonomo, associate chief of staff for Cleveland VA (Veterans Administration) Medical Center, who was among the medical personnel at the BKL ceremony. “We do it because we’re dedicated to veteran care, and our first mission is to make sure veterans are taken care of. It’s nice to be appreciated of course, but what really motivates us is the dedication to care.”

Terry McGuire, public affairs specialist, VA Western NY Healthcare System, agreed.

“We always appreciate anyone that’s willing to reach out and thank our great staff at the VA because they do put in great hours and great energy to mitigate the effects of COVID-19,” he said, following the ceremony at BUF, which also included airport emergency personnel and first responders. ”It’s a global pandemic and we’re doing our part to make our healthcare accessible to our veterans in the local area.”

So far, the torch has been flown to about 35 states, with its trip expected to conclude Friday, Oct. 30 in Washington, DC.

Skip Helmly, an intern with the Spirit of Liberty Foundation, has been traveling with the torch since it left San Diego, CA on Sept, 23, and said the cross-country trip has been remarkable.

“It’s amazing to see how thankful and grateful [the healthcare workers] are, but it’s vice versa because we really can’t be more grateful for everything they do, he said. “It’s a two-way street.”

Helmly said the hope for the relay is that by passing the torch to medical professionals at each airport, they will in turn share the gratitude with other personnel in that city or region. “We start a little fire and hopefully it turns into a great blaze,” he said.

For Gertsen, taking part in a leg of the cross-country relay was both personally and professionally rewarding, as he has been assisting the foundation along the way by connecting personnel with general aviation pilots and other logistics when needed.

“During the pandemic, business aviation has been critical, flying patients and moving medical samples and supplies. We’ve done so much,” he said. “This was a way for general aviation to be more visible – passing the torch from one pilot to another as it travels thousands of miles across the country with stops in small towns and large metropolitan areas really shows the power of general aviation.”

With the event bringing healthcare workers and first responders out to their local general aviation airport, it also offers an opportunity to highlight the airports’ importance in keeping communities connected, Gertsen said.

“It’s always great to use your flying skills for something bigger than just going from point A to point B, Gertsen said following his leg of the relay. “Today was meaningful on so many different levels.”

Learn more about Relay in the Sky.