May 8, 2020

What began as a school Twitter post highlighting one student’s efforts to help out during the COVID-19 crisis led to international headlines and a White House visit for student pilot TJ Kim, who over the past several weeks has flown thousands of personal protective equipment (PPE) items to rural hospitals in Virginia.

Kim, 16, was featured in a March 29 tweet by the Landon School in Bethesda, MD, about the sophomore’s creative way to combine his weekly flight lessons with lending a hand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are so inspired by the stories of our Landon community going above and beyond to help those in need!” the post read. “T.J. ’22 is in flight school and using his training to fly much-needed supplies to rural hospitals. He’s calling it Operation SOS – Supplies Over the Skies!”

Kim and his instructor, Dave Powell, flew their first relief mission in late March, loading up a Cessna 172 with gloves, masks, gowns and other PPE for delivery to a 25-bed hospital in the rural community of Luray, VA.

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

The PPE items are being collected by Kim’s father, Thomas, who also paid for his son’s first flying lesson on his 15th birthday. Kim’s ultimate goal is to deliver needed supplies to all seven rural medical facilities defined as “critical access hospitals” in Virginia, with his longest cross-country heading to Clintwood, VA in the southwest corner of the state.

In addition to local TV stations, newspapers and the Associated Press, Kim’s story quickly drew national attention from CBS News and CNN, and even international coverage from the United Kingdom’s The Independent newspaper. On May 1, Kim was invited to speak at the White House.