STILL FLYING: Humanitarian Cargo Flight of Masks from China to U.S.

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While news headlines focus on the decline of international travel, it’s important to remember that many essential and critical missions are still being conducted by the general and business aviation communities. Many of these missions save lives or reunite people with their loved ones. During a crisis like COVID-19, our industry shines.

With COVID-19 cases rising and personal protective equipment (PPE) dwindling, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker began looking for alternative ways to source vital masks for his state. Baker struck a deal with a manufacturer, Tencent, in China for more than one million masks. Getting them from China to the United States, however, was going to be the hard part.

After learning about the need for an aircraft to make the delivery, New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft stepped up. Kraft offered the use of the Patriots’ Boeing 767, normally used to charter the team to away games.

With the PPE sourced and the aircraft secured, now came the logistical gauntlet of navigating the complex bureaucratic channels of embassies, civil aviation departments, and airport authorities to pull it off.

Having not operated this type of mission before, the Kraft group began seeking advice from follow companies on how to proceed. One of those was the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which had recently completed a repatriation flight from Morocco, with the support of Universal. Sands recommended our team to help, and Kraft’s team reached out to us.

Having recently coordinated a similar mission for Alibaba Founder Jack Ma, we knew how to pull off a mission like this and the many hours of work ahead. Acting as a consultant with Kraft’s operations team, we laid out the plan to navigate the diplomatic waters.

It all started with the Embassies. We laid out the format and a guideline for how the Kraft team and Tencent in China could effectively engage their respective embassies to get the required permissions. Both companies were terrific and jumped right in to get this mission done.

In the meantime, the 767, which doesn’t normally operate much internationally, needed to have some new avionics equipment installed before it could operate to China. We helped the Kraft team identify what equipment was needed and what other preparations they had to make for this first international mission to China.

Once the two Embassies started talking to each other, things got moving, and the flight was authorized. Now it was time to talk with China Civil Aviation (CAA). China CAA normally has a 15-day lead time for an operating permit for any private aircraft with more than 19 seats operating to China. The same applies to cargo, which this flight was. Obviously, this timeline wasn’t going to work.

Our Universal Aviation China team on the ground leveraged its close relationships with local authorities to whittle that lead time from 15 days to just a few.

Challenge overcome, but that was just the start.

Next came a three-hour window to load more than a million masks onto the aircraft–a daunting task, to say the least. The Kraft flight had two full flight crews onboard. The plan was that one crew would fly while the other slept, and then they would switch roles upon arrival. Due to duty-hour restrictions, the aircraft could not spend more than three hours on the ground in China

Universal Aviation China had a plan. They sent team member Eric Tang on a flight from Beijing to Shenzen in advance, where he quickly sourced 25 porters for loading the life-saving cargo upon the aircraft’s arrival.

Eric than had to coordinate the pickup of the masks from various locations in Shenzen. The masks were scattered across the city in a number of different warehouses. Eric worked with Tencent to ensure all the masks were picked up, cleared customs, and were standing by for the aircraft’s arrival.

Once the aircraft was on ground, the team ground handling team pulled the empty pallets from the aircraft cargo hold. Then the team of 25 porters loaded, by hand, each box and prepped the pallets to load onto the aircraft.

Loading more than 1 million masks onto a 767, even with 25 people is normally a 5-hour job. Add in the fact that everyone was wearing full PPE, and it is even more difficult. The team pulled it off in two hours and 55 minutes – meeting the three-hour window just in the nick of time.

Shortly after the flight took off en route to Anchorage, we received the following message from the Kraft team.

“I cannot thank everyone enough for all the efforts over the past week and some longer to make this mission a success.  While the overall mission is not complete, we have departed Shenzhen for our journey to Alaska and onto Boston and New York to deliver these life-saving supplies to those doing battle on the ground.

Our doctors, nurses, and first responders have been heralded as heroes, and for good reason.  But I would also say that each one of you on this mission, and everyone who participated on your teams is a hero.  You all showed great courage and drive in order to serve others in need.  I personally as well as the Kraft family have great appreciation for what you have done and accomplished to date.  No small feat.”

It’s missions like this that highlight the important role business aviation plays during challenge times, like those we’re going through today with COVID-19. We want to thank Robert Kraft and Tencent for allowing us to support this mission, as well as thank the Las Vegas Sands Corporation for recommending us.

If you are considering a COVID-19 humanitarian cargo mission in China during this crisis, we are here to help. Universal is waiving all fees for trip feasibility assessments, research, and consultation services—even if we have to burn hours researching to get you the answer. Now is the time to come together as an industry, and as a community, to do whatever it takes to make these critical missions happen.


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