Coronavirus

Teenage pilot flies medical supplies to rural hospitals across Virginia

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McLEAN, Va. (AP) — TJ Kim can’t play lacrosse — COVID-19 took the sport away — and at age 16, he can’t drive alone, but Kim can fly, so he turned his flying lessons into missions of mercy, bringing desperately needed supplies to rural hospitals in need.

In this March 27, 2020 photo provided by Thomas Kim, TJ Kim, 16, loads medical supplies into a plane in Leesburg, Va., before flying to a hospital in Luray. Kim began delivering donated medical supplies to rural hospitals in need after realizing his flight training could be put to good use during the coronavirus pandemic. (Thomas Kim via AP)

Each week, he carries gloves, masks, gowns and other equipment to small hospitals. When he made his first delivery, on March 27 to a 25-bed hospital in Luray, he was taken aback by the reception.

“They kind of conveyed to me that they were really forgotten about. Everyone was wanting to send donations to big city hospitals,” he said. “Every hospital is hurting for supplies, but it’s the rural hospitals that really feel forgotten.”

Like high school students across the country, Kim was disheartened when school and activities were shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In TJ’s case, the shutdown ended his lacrosse season before it ever really got started.

Kim, 16, a sophomore at Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, brainstormed with his family in McLean, Virginia, about ways to keep active, and to serve the community while he had the time. They settled on Operation SOS — Supplies Over Skies.

This April 3, 2020 photo provided by Thomas Kim, shows medical supplies before they were flown by teen pilot TJ Kim, who lives in McLean, Va., to Shenandoah Memorial Center the following day. Kim began delivering donated medical supplies to rural hospitals in need after realizing his flight training could be put to good use during the coronavirus pandemic. (Thomas Kim via AP)

The most recent flight carried 3,000 gloves, 1,000 head covers, 500 shoe covers, 50 non-surgical masks, 20 pairs of protective eyewear and 10 concentrated bottles of hand sanitizer to Winchester to help supply a hospital in nearby Woodstock.

The goal, he said, is to make deliveries to all seven rural hospitals in Virginia defined as critical access hospitals. The flights will become progressively longer. If all goes according to plan, the final flight would take him to Clintwood in far southwest Virginia.

Kim’s flight instructor, Dave Powell, said he was blown away when his student first proposed the project, especially since he knew how disappointed TJ had been with the cancellation of lacrosse.

In this March 27, 2020 photo provided by Thomas Kim, TJ Kim, 16, prepares to land in Luray, Va., to drop off medical supplies. Kim began delivering donated medical supplies to rural hospitals in need after realizing his flight training could be put to good use during the coronavirus pandemic. (Thomas Kim via AP)

“For TJ to be more concerned with the needs of others in his melancholy state just reiterated to me how amazing this young man is,” Powell said.

Kim’s father, Thomas, has helped round up supplies — the hardest part of the operation, according to his son. It was Thomas who bought TJ a flying lesson for his 15th birthday. He fell in love with the sky.

“After I landed, all I could think about was going back up,” said, TJ, who hopes to attend the Naval Academy and ultimately become a pilot.

Indeed, his flying is farther along than his driving. His preference for flying over driving is clear.

In this March 27, 2020 photo provided by Thomas Kim, TJ Kim, 16, prepares to take off from Leesburg, Va., to drop off medical supplies at a hospital in Luray. Kim began delivering donated medical supplies to rural hospitals in need after realizing his flight training could be put to good use during the coronavirus pandemic. (Thomas Kim via AP)

“It’s a lot more free,” he said. “When you’re driving, you have to be in your lane, watch your blind spot and everything.”

Thomas Kim said he was glad to see his son channel his initial disappointment at losing his sports season into something positive — “something that combines serving the community and his love of flying.”

“The stars really aligned here,” the father said.

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