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The Air Up There Podcast

E2: Operation Supplies Over Skies

Published: Tuesday, August 18, 2020

When the COVID-19 public health emergency cancelled everything, 16-year-old student pilot TJ Kim started flying PPE and other medical supplies to rural hospitals in his state of Virginia. He's calling it Operation SOS: Supplies Over Skies. We'll talk with TJ about why he started "Operation SOS," his flight instructor, a representative from EAA's Young Eagles program and an FAA STEM AVSED outreach representative about why they support young people's interest in aviation.

Read the show notes on our blog.

E2: Operation Supplies Over Skies

E2: Operation Supplies Over Skies

Transcript

John Croft:
Welcome to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide, wide world of aviation. This is a podcast for everyone who loves everything that flies, including people like me an aviation geek. I'm John Croft.

Alison Duquette:
And I'm Alison Duquette.

Alison Duquette:
John, I'm really excited about today's episode because we're talking about young people who want to become pilots, a pilot, just like you. You interviewed a few people for today's show, including TJ Kim, a 16 year old student pilot, who's doing something sort of unusual as part of his flight training.

John Croft:
And that's putting it mildly, Alison. It's very unusual and it's very cool. TJ is a young guy, like you said. He recently finished up his sophomore year in high school and like many other students across the country, his classes and activities have moved online as COVID-19 started to impact the world.

Alison Duquette:
And what's really neat is that he wanted to do something to help.

John Croft:
Exactly. TJ who happens to be a student pilot, worked with his dad and his instructor to do something really cool; to fly PPE and other supplies to hospitals in rural Virginia. He's calling it Operation SOS, Supplies Over Skies.

Alison Duquette:
That's awesome. Let's play this interview. I love this story.

TJ Kim:
Ever since I was nine years old, my dream has been to attend the Naval Academy and become a fighter pilot. A little over a year ago when I turned 15, my dad got me a discovery flight for my birthday. It's where you go up with a certified flight instructor and kind of get a feel for what it's like to fly an aircraft. After that first flight I was hooked and I couldn't wait to get back up in the air again. Flying has been my passion ever since.

John Croft:
Tell me about that first flight. Everybody remembers theirs. What kind of aircraft and where did you go?

TJ Kim:
I fly in train out of Leesburg Executive Airport. It was with my flight instructor, Dave Powell. We went up in a Cessna 172. He did most of the controls because obviously I'd never flown before. But once I got up there, he gave me the controls a little bit. He let me fly it around and let me get a feel for what flying is like and just really the appeal of it. During that flight I couldn't stop thinking this is incredible. This is so amazing. This is what I want to do with my life. When we came back down, my parents signed me up for flight school that day.

John Croft:
Oh, wow. You're a sophomore in high school right now. We've seen the articles, everyone's seen the articles, flying medical supplies. Where did that idea come from? There's a lot of ways to do that, but you linked it to your flight training. How did that come about?

TJ Kim:
Well, I guess it all started when due to coronavirus my school, Landon, moved into distance learning and then our lacrosse season got canceled as well, and all I had left was my flight training. Community service is something that I take very seriously. It's also very heavily emphasized at Landon. I talked to my dad about ways I can continue my flight training progression while serving the community at the same time. That's how we came up with Operation SOS, meaning Supplies Over the Skies.

TJ Kim:
The response from my friends has been incredible. Just all of the support that I've been getting and being able to fly medical supplies and just serve the community is something that's really been the driving force.

John Croft:
So did you collect supplies or did someone give you the supplies and you flew them over there?

TJ Kim:
In the beginning, me and my dad went out locally and we still do just sourcing supplies, getting whatever we can. I guess more recently when the story started breaking bigger, we received a lot of emails and packages from friends who want to donate stuff that they can source in their own neighborhoods. We've been gathering supplies in a lot of different ways, but it's really due to the support of the community that we were able to get the supplies.

John Croft:
How did you decide where to take the supplies and where did you find the local airport?

TJ Kim:
Me and my dad did a little bit of research and we found that there are seven local access hospitals throughout Virginia, and they're all in really rural areas. That's when I really wanted to make the mission about serving rural hospitals. After we flew down to Luray for the first time, we met a couple of hospital workers from there to pick up the supplies. We chatted a little bit and they just were so grateful and I could tell how much it meant to them. They told us that the rural hospitals are very overlooked because the big city hospitals are getting all the attention, they're the ones where everyone wants to donate to, so they've kind of felt left out. That reception that I've been getting ever since that first flight, it's been at every single airport. It just shows the impact that you can have on these little rural hospitals.

TJ Kim:
It worked out that all these rural places are over 50 miles from Leesburg, so I've been able to get a good progression in my cross-country stage of life.

John Croft:
And so your instructor is going with you as a dual cross-country for these?

TJ Kim:
Yes. I fly under dual instruction. We are really careful. We pay attention to all the health guidelines. Every time I fly it is considered a medical flight.

John Croft:
Well, speaking of flight training, I assume you're getting a private … which license are you pursuing?

TJ Kim:
Well, looking forward to getting my private pilot's license next year when I turn 17. This is what I've been training for. I'm just progressing through the training and doing everything possible.

TJ Kim:
Actually before this whole coronavirus incident, we were preparing for me to solo for the first time. The whole timeline and schedule got messed up. So instead we decided to switch to cross-country because it fit with the whole Operation SOS so well. We've kind of put a hold on solo training.

TJ Kim:
The plan is once I turn 17 to take that check ride and hopefully I'll be ready by then.

John Croft:
Well during those flights, you said you've done six so far with a seventh Monday. Anything really cool that happened? Anything that was memorable in terms of Operation SOS or just flying in general? What sticks in your memory?

TJ Kim:
The whole cross-country flights have been really new, like learning how to plan them was very fun to learn. Just flying everywhere, like all over Virginia. I got to go to Blacksburg Airport, and Virginia Tech. That's really Southwest Virginia. Just being able to go out there and explore different places in my home state has been really cool. I went to Topping, Virginia once on the East coast. I got to fly over water in the Chesapeake Bay. That was really cool. Flying over mountains.

TJ Kim:
Learning about different weather patterns too with my flight instructor, he's really taught me a lot. And since we have a lot of time during the cross-country flights, we're able to do a little bit of what could be considered ground training, like learning about weather patterns, wind patterns, irregular runways and stuff like that, but we're able to do that in the air. So very productive flights, just getting to learn more about aviation as a whole.

John Croft:
What's been for you the most rewarding part of these flights?

TJ Kim:
I would say just being able to help others, like seeing the hospital workers when we land. When we went to Topping, Virginia, to Bon Secours [Memorial Regional Medical Center], they brought out 15 people with signs and balloons when I landed. The reception has been crazy every time. You just see the appreciation from the hospital workers. That is what really gives me the most joy doing these flights.

John Croft:
Let me move into a little bit of your aspirations for aviation. You talked about the Naval Academy. What spawned your interest in being a fighter pilot? Did you see an air show or something that captured your imagination or what was it?

TJ Kim:
I guess it started with my dad. My dad wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he couldn't because of his eyesight. He let me know from when I was really young, that's what he wanted to do, but he couldn't unfortunately. It was always kind of in the back of my mind. I'd see TV programs. There was this one that I used to watch called Dog Fights; old show on History Channel, where they talk about specific battles and they bring in the pilots that were in those battles and they do an interview documentary replay kind of show. That really sparked my interest when I was little.

TJ Kim:
After watching that show a couple of times, my parents took me to the Naval Academy for a tour. It was something my dad always wanted to do, and when he saw that it was something that I might be able to do, it really excited that both of us. Ever since then I've wanted to go to the Naval Academy, wanted to fly jets off a carrier. It's just a dream that I'm working towards.

John Croft:
Both of my bosses, the administrator and the deputy administrator both went to the Air Force Academy. Why not the Air Force?

TJ Kim:
Oh, I don't know. It's maybe partly because of my dad. Just flying off carriers seems cooler than flying off land maybe.

John Croft:
I have to agree with you there on the carriers. There can't be anything cooler than that, especially at night. Good for you for pushing for that.

John Croft:
Getting the perspective of a pilot, seeing things the way the pilots see them, how do you feel like that gives a person an edge in life in general? Or do you feel like it gives you an edge or could give you an edge?

TJ Kim:
Well, there are definitely certain skills that I've been able to work on just due to the nature of piloting, like problem solving. We run into a lot of issues up in the air, weather permitting. Just being able to work around those problems and still complete the mission, and that's something I've been able to learn even more through doing these cross-country flights.

TJ Kim:
One time just last week, we were planning to fly down to Blacksburg again, and we checked the NOTAMs that day and it said that that runaway was closed, so we had to contact the hospital and switch airports. Just working through all these little problems that come up when you're flying and working through the problems and still being able to get the mission done, that's something very crucial that I've learned through this training.

John Croft:
When you think about where you'll be in 10 years, what do you think about?

TJ Kim:
Hopefully, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean flying an F-35 off a carrier. It's been the end goal ever since I was nine, and hopefully I can just make that dream turn into reality.

John Croft:
Well, we hope you get there. It's been really cool talking to you.

Alison Duquette:
Okay John, that was really cool. One of the things that really shines through in your conversation is how much TJ has learned through his flight training. He's clearly learning how to fly an airplane well, but he was speaking about working through problems that come up. I've got to say those really seem like life skills to me.

John Croft:
I completely agree. And when I spoke with TJ's instructor, Bobby Chahal, he echoed a lot of the same sentiments. Bobby is an instructor at Aero Elite in Leesburg, Virginia. He has been flying alongside TJ for all the Operation SOS flights.

John Croft:
Tell me about when you met TJ. Was he typical of the students you have? Was he different? Tell us about that.

Bobby Chahal:
So actually TJ was a student of my colleague, Dave Powell. Dave Powell and TJ got the Operation SOS started with their first flight out to Laredo Airport in a rural part of Virginia. Dave could no longer fly because of a coronavirus crisis and other extenuating circumstances, so I filled in for TJ and I've been flying subsequently since then.

Bobby Chahal:
I remember the first time when I linked up with Dave he had told me about the idea and I thought it was a phenomenal idea. Great idea, using a GA aircraft as a tool during this crisis, as it was evolving at the very beginning of it. I thought it was amazing that one of our students thought to do this.

Bobby Chahal:
At that time, I didn't know of TJ's background, that he was just a 16 year old student. I was quite surprised that TJ was the brains behind this operation, when I learned he was 16 years old. I think that's very respectable, very remarkable, very applaudable. Not even some of us older guys, thought we would be thinking you can do that, and then here we are flight instructors, chief flight instructors, flight school owners, none of us thought about doing that. So a huge shout out to TJ for that.

John Croft:
One of the important things you learn pretty quickly is the importance of risk management, which comes down to planning, and more importantly, knowing when to change a plan or call off a flight. Once people get moving down a path, it's just in our nature, especially as pilots to want to keep going down that path. When you're flying though, you have to put that instinct in check. It's really important to keep those plans flexible so that you're doing everything as safely as possible.

Bobby Chahal:
We make necessary adjustments as we need based on weather. We try to see if we can forecast as close as two days. That's when we get a near term accurate forecast, especially with the seasonal changes. Everyone is very flexible, parties departing, parties on the ground, for shifting a schedule … if we need to be for weather, aircraft availability, for whatever reason. One of my concerns behind it is teaching a young aviator and just even a young upcoming private pilot is not to get pressured just because we are doing some mission-based flying. It's one of our risk factors. We don't want "get-there-it is" syndrome.

Bobby Chahal:
Everyone has been very flexible on that part, so that has never been the case at all. We actually do scrub our flights if we need to, based on the weather. Everyone is very flexible. TJ's father does the coordination with the hospital on the ground and helping arranging times. That's a little bit behind the scenes of what's going on there.

John Croft:
What's been your longest flight so far in terms of distance?

Bobby Chahal:
Our longest flight for our mission so far has been to Blacksburg Airport. One leg was coming up on about two hours, 20 minutes. We had some stronger headwinds that day. So two hours, 20 minutes, round trip that was looking like about … actually we hit four hours exactly on the Hobbs [meter]. So it was quite a long flight day. I think we were both a little bit tired after that one.

John Croft:
Does it feel pretty good to contribute that way? Most of us are used to doing the hundred dollar hamburger, but you're actually helping the cause here.

Bobby Chahal:
Absolutely. I never would have imagined that first of all that we'd be in this pandemic, if you would have asked me a few months ago. Second of all, I never thought I would be helping make a difference with GA or any form of aviation for that particular matter. It's definitely a great thing that's going on. Honored to be working with TJ and helping him achieve his goals.

John Croft:
Very cool. One of the big pushes we have in general at the FAA and airspace in general is trying to get the next generation interested in flying and aerospace. We don't see a lot of kids really that have the interest, but you had it yourself obviously. And I guess you see that in TJ. Do you see it in many other kids?

Bobby Chahal:
That's a very good question. I just don't think aviation has really explored that too much around schools. It was interesting me growing up too, as a child, when I went to high school, we didn't really have any aviation programs. I'm working with some younger kids now in our surrounding counties, and it's really great to hear now they actually do have aviation curriculum for their private pilot, actually a ground school after they complete that class and their high school it's offered, they get signed off for their written test. So it's really remarkable how much has changed, but I think we still do have a long ways to go. It's not really talked about much, but I think we all need to do our part in outreaching out of the community and outreaching out to the students.

Bobby Chahal:
That's one of the ways that I got involved. It was as simple as someone in, I believe second grade, a private came in, a United Airlines pilot, a big player in our community over here. He came in, he talked about his job. And then fast forward about fifth grade at a career day, a United Airlines pilot once again came in, he talked about his career, who probably get that much attention as some of the other jobs like the doctors or even a lawyer. I definitely think that is a huge step on having pilots out there reaching out to the community.

Alison Duquette:
We hear that same message a lot in the aviation world, right? Lots of people have stories like Bobby's where they can point to that one person or that one experience that got them really excited about aviation. I think for a lot of kids, they just need someone to show them that it's possible. That's a huge part of the experimental Aircraft Association's Young Eagles program.

Alison Duquette:
Let's play some of your interview with Brian O'Lena, the Young Eagles program manager at EAA.

Brian O'Lena:
A little history about the program for Young Eagles. It began in 1992 at what was then called Oshkosh; it's now called Air Venture. Our goal was to give one million flights to young people by the year 2003, which was the hundredth anniversary of flight. We met that goal and had more than a million people, kids flown by 2003, and to date we're a little over 2.2 million kids flown.

Brian O'Lena:
It's all been done by volunteer pilots. We got 50,000 plus pilots over the years that have flown, although traditionally 4,500 to 5,000 pilots a year fly the kids. It's a volunteer program. EAA supports it and provides insurance for the pilots and paperwork and that type of stuff. The volunteer pilots at our 900 chapters around the country and some individual EAA member pilots are our main contributor to the program.

John Croft:
Well, who would you say is your perfect Young Eagles candidate?

Brian O'Lena:
I like to think anybody. You never know who this is going to appeal to. We cast a wide net. We're looking for kids eight through 17. I would say a sweet spot is probably that 14 plus age for kids that might be interested in learning to fly.

John Croft:
I'm curious, what about Young Eagles has made it so successful? What does it do for kids that really they aren't getting elsewhere?

Brian O'Lena:
I think first off it's in their community, it's grassroots. It's done by our pilots, volunteer EAA member pilots who are doing it because of the love of it. We don't reimburse them for fuel. We don't reimburse them for the aircraft time. They do this because they love it. They're sharing their love and their joy of aviation. It's why I became a pilot. I love it. It's why I became a flight instructor. I enjoy teaching.

Brian O'Lena:
A lot of our members, whether they're flight instructors or not, and a sport pilot can give one of these, recreational pilot, private pilot, anybody that meets the FAA guidelines of that certificate can certainly give a flight. And by sharing it in their local community, through our almost 900 plus chapters, it puts it in a level where they can understand it. It's someone that they may know in their community may be giving them a flight, which appeals to a lot of people.

Alison Duquette:
Okay, let's take a quick break. We put safety first here at the FAA and so can you. Here's a great safety tip.

FAA Announcer:
Drone pilots, have a flight plan before flying. Picture this; you settle into your seat, buckle your seatbelt and get comfortable for the flight ahead. The pilot's voice travels from the loudspeaker.

Airline Pilot:
Good afternoon folks, and thanks for joining us for today's flight. We're headed out west, maybe to Denver, maybe to LA. We'll see how it looks up there.

FAA Announcer:
An airline pilot never flies without a plan. Neither should you. When you're preparing to fly your drone, a great place to start is the FAA's B4Ufly app. That's the letter B, number four, letter U, fly. The app has interactive maps, information about nearby infrastructure and lets you know whether or not it's safe to fly in the airspace.

FAA Announcer:
To learn more about the app and flying your drone safely visit faa.gov/uas.

John Croft:
Brian said this very well, but I can't say enough about how big of an impact we can have on young people just by sharing all the things we love about aviation.

Alison Duquette:
That's one of the big reasons why the FAA value student outreach. We have an entire STEM outreach program and basically FAA employees, partner with schools and community groups to share what it's like to work in the aviation field.

Alison Duquette:
Here's Nate Morrissey. He's an aviation safety inspector at our Flight Standards District Office in Long Beach, California. Nate's a pilot, a flight instructor, and he's worked at the FAA for 14 years. And in addition to all of that, he regularly visits schools to talk with kids about aviation.

Alison Duquette:
Our producer, Dominque Gebru sat down with Nate and asked him what kinds of questions he gets from students.

Dominque Gebru:
When you get in front of groups of young people to talk about flying and about aviation in general, what advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a pilot?

Nate Morrissey:
Everybody thinks that this is just going to be a hurdle that they can't even imagine, but the barrier to entry on this, it's not terrible. I guarantee you have what it takes. It's not incredibly hard. What I like to tell people is maneuvering the airplane is kind of a skill and I don't want to take that away from anybody, but really what makes a good pilot in my opinion is the decisions they make. That is a majority of flying right there. It's knowing what decision to make and when to make it. Having the good frame of mind going, you know what we're not going to continue down this path, we're going to turn around or we're not even going to take off today. So if you've got a good head on your shoulders, I guarantee you got what it takes to be a pilot or get into the aviation field.

Nate Morrissey:
I just want people to understand that you can do this. It's not impossible. Trust me. If you knew me and most of the people I hang out with were not like the astronauts where it's the best of the best of the best. We're normal people, normal IQs and intelligence levels, and we were able to happen. We just were the ones that did it.

Nate Morrissey:
Guys, I got to tell you out there who's ever listening on the other end of this, you 100% could do this. I know you can. And once you get there or at least do a discovery flight, you're doing more than most people on the planet could ever dream of. So just get out there and go do it, but rely on those resources.

Nate Morrissey:
In the show notes or something put my email in there. I don't know mine. Have them email me and go, "Hey Nate, I got more specific questions." Or the great people that are putting this podcast together, we want to help you out. That'd be my biggest thing. Like anything else in life, don't think it's this huge barrier of entry and you don't have what it takes because for the most part, everybody has what it takes; they just got to find the route and the road to go down.

Alison Duquette:
Nate's right. John, I think for a lot of people, the most important first step is acknowledging that learning to fly a plane is possible. You can do it.

Alison Duquette:
We'll link some of the resources we talked about in the show notes for this episode. For all of you out there listening to this episode, we hope that you take Nate's words to heart. You can do this.

John Croft:
That's our show for today. The Air Up There is a podcast brought to you by the Federal Aviation Administration. You can follow the FAA on Twitter @faanews and on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn at FAA. Thanks for listening. Happy landings.

John Croft:
Hey Allison, what's more fun than a day at the airport.

Alison Duquette:
What John?

John Croft:
Absolutely nothing, but aviation trivia is its close second.

FAA Announcer:
Have you ever noticed air traffic control towers have angled glass windows near the top? You want to know why? Air traffic controllers working in control towers need to have constant visibility of the airfield at all times. The glass in the tower's windows are angled at precisely 15 degrees. This prevents glare and reflections that could block controllers' visibility of the full runway and tarmac.

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