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In West Texas, volunteers manufacture medical supplies and amateur pilots deliver to remote hospitals

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From left, Bryan Rose and Scott Gloyna deliver medical supplies via airplane to the city of Monahans. Courtesy of Scott Gloyna

The prototype parts were ready to leave Odessa for Lubbock. But who could make the drive?

Send them via UPS, someone suggested. Mark Merritt had a better idea.

“That’s when I said, ‘I can have them there in an hour,’” recalled Meritt, who leads a manufacturing company in Odessa and flies a single-engine Grumman Tiger for business and pleasure. “Let’s not wait.”

As health care workers across the country combat the new coronavirus, it has been particularly difficult for small, rural hospitals to compete for the protective equipment they need to safely treat patients. A group of West Texas businesses and Texas Tech University employees have come together to design and manufacture medical equipment like face shields that they can deliver for free to the most remote pockets of the state.

Only, the delivering proved a challenge.

So, almost by accident, the group has drafted a volunteer air force, drawing on the considerable talent of a spread-out region where amateur aviators are not difficult to find. Merritt put a call out in West Texas Aviators, a lively Facebook group whose members might more typically meet up in San Angelo for hamburgers or Lajitas for breakfast: Would anyone be interested in helping deliver medical supplies? The answer, overwhelmingly, was yes. The word also spread to a smaller group, the Fat Tire Cowboys, who come together to land their planes on land thinner tires could never handle, on sandbars, dirt strips on ranches, or runways with grass peeping up through the cracks.

Now as many as 1,000 Texas pilots from both groups have volunteered to help transport the consortium’s medical supplies to the providers that have the greatest need. The group has donated about 4,000 face shields and 150 intubation shields to dozens of small hospitals and senior care centers. Pilots have ferried many of those deliveries, landing in places as far-flung as Monahans, Rotan and Eldorado. Anything west of Abilene is fair game, Merritt said.

Simon Williams, an associate dean at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said there is little modeling to help rural hospitals anticipate increases in COVID-19 patients — making it all the more important that his group can transport medical supplies quickly when hotspots do appear.

“What we really need is the capability to provide a flexible response,” Williams said. “If we had an outbreak anywhere in West Texas, we have a supply of materials we could get to them in a few hours.”

Pilots work closely with the manufacturing team, and there is never a shortage of interest in making deliveries, organizers said. Some “are so keen to fly that they are even helping us with packing the boxes,” said Chanaka Senanayake, a post-doctoral research associate at Tech who is facilitating distribution. Peace officers have been helping with ground transport, shuttling deliveries from airports to hospitals.

Certain places are just easier to reach from the sky, Merritt said. Air travel means quicker deliveries to parts of the state where cities fall far apart — and where roads, beaten down by oil workers and the affiliated traffic of 18-wheelers carrying sand and steel pipes, are notoriously dangerous.

Also, it’s more fun. Merritt recently flew from the west side of Odessa to the east side of Midland for a business meeting, a flight of seven minutes.

One of the team’s earliest shipments went to Ward Memorial Hospital in Monahans, 50 miles north of Fort Stockton, where Williams said there was just one ventilator.

Scott Gloyna, a former Air Force pilot who also volunteers with the health care transport organization Angel Flight, made the drop in Ward County along with a fellow Fat Tire Cowboy.

“Whatever it takes to get from here to there,” Gloyna said.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.