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How CAA and Hope Air Flew to the Rescue During the Pandemic

Talking to Jay Woo, president and CEO of CAA Club Group, about volunteering during the early days of Covid-19 and what it’s like to work with Hope Air.

The view from the plane from one of CAA Club Group President Jay Woo's volunteer flights for Hope Air

On Easter weekend, volunteer pilots Jay Woo and Gerd Wengler made a special delivery to communities in northern Ontario and Québec—but they weren’t delivering chocolate eggs and bunnies. Instead, the two pilots, who volunteer with Hope Air, were dropping off much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers.

Hope Air provides free transportation to Canadians in financial need who require medical care far from home. But as the need for PPE ramped up in April during Covid-19, Hope Air volunteers expanded their mission.

So in mid-April, Woo—who has been a pilot since 1998—took off from Buttonville Airport in Markham, his single- engine Cessna 182 loaded with surgical masks and N95 respirators collected by the organization Mobilizing Masks for Health Care Providers.

We talked to Woo about his experience of bringing hope to communities in need at the height of the Covid crisis.

CAA Club Group President Jay Woo stands next to his plane before a volunteer flight for Hope Air

Why did you decide to get your pilot’s license?

I wanted to become an astronaut so I pursued academic studies and degrees in the field of aeronautics, in addition to earning my pilot licenses and ratings. Pursuing these studies in aeronautics has also taught me scientific skills that I use in my role at CAA.

How did you get involved with Hope Air?

I saw a call for pilots in the Canadian Pilots Association newsletter looking for volunteer pilots to help transport low-income Canadians from northern Ontario to Toronto for medical treatment. Since I grew up in poverty myself, I immediately connected with this need and I stepped forward to serve as a volunteer pilot.

What gave you the idea to fly PPE to remote communities?

My wife, Wah, is a volunteer with the 105 Gibson Community Centre. She was approached by a team of physicians to help deliver the PPE that they were collecting. Since CAA emergency roadside was not busy due to the lockdown, I volunteered CAA’s services to help these physicians distribute the PPE. Requests then started to come in from northern Ontario, and at that point I volunteered my time on weekends to personally fly the PPE up to northern Ontario healthcare facilities.

How did CAA team up with Mobilizing Masks to determine which remote communities needed PPE?

The Mobilizing Masks team partnered with the 105 Gibson Community Centre, and CAA became directly involved in the ground transport of PPE. For the remote northern communities, healthcare facilities in those areas contacted the Mobilizing Masks team to request PPE and the team then dispatched me to fly the PPE delivery missions.

What type of PPE were you delivering?

I was delivering N95 respirators, surgical masks and face shields to areas in and around Kapuskasing, Manitoulin, Waterloo-Wellington region, eastern Ontario and western Québec. By air, we have personally delivered more than 115,000 pieces of PPE to remote communities.

What was the reaction?

The reaction from these communities was one of immense gratitude. They were also very surprised that there are people who would go to this effort to help these remote communities.

If it wasn’t for volunteer pilots like yourself, what would be the situation in those remote communities?

The situation would absolutely be dire. The medical professionals who we spoke with said that without these volunteer deliveries, their healthcare personnel would be unprotected and exposed.

What has the overall experience been like for you?

The missions themselves are physically and mentally exhausting. A great deal of flight planning is done to create the flight plan, including analyzing the terrain and weather. On the day of the flight, I would pick up the boxes of PPE and then load them into the aircraft. Once everything is in order, I would take off for the long flight up north. Other than the exhausting nature of the flights, it has been rewarding to know that we have in some way contributed to helping the northern remote communities in their fight against Covid-19.

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Image credit: Courtesy of CAA