Enlarge /. Quest Diagnostics Flight Operations, Reading Regional Airport, Reading, Pennsylvania. Photo by Steve Hockstein / HarvardStudio.com
It's pretty quiet out there these days, especially after you go to bed. But somewhere up there, a pilot bathed in the glow of avionics looks out from his instrument panel into the night. Behind it are 76 soft-side coolers that contain the physical data on which modern medicine depends – samples of blood, urine, and tissue from people across the country.
You are on board a Pilatus PC-12 turboprop business jet that has been picked up from airports where it has been delivered by laboratories, medical practices and hospitals. The aircraft is part of the 25-person sample transport fleet of Quest Diagnostics, one of the two leading companies in the medical laboratory services market.
The Quest pilots' mission to collect and transport this valuable cargo has the same goal every evening: to collect the material and return it safely to one of Quest's laboratories by 2 a.m. This way, the laboratory results will be available to the person from whom the sample is taken at 8 a.m. a day or two later.
During this period of COVID-19, there are remarkably few planes in the air over America at night. Take a look at FlightRadar24.com or FlightAware.com at 10pm or 11pm and you will see.
When you click the small airplane icon, you will likely see the "LBQ" identifier and the call sign "LabQuest". With each Quest PC-12 in the air in the dark sky, the hopes and fears of 76 waiting patients are waiting for results.
Always in the air
For example, Quest planes flew in an empty sky on September 11, 2001. "We were almost the only ones outside the government in the air," recalls Scott Gordon, senior director of National Air Logistics at Quest. "We actually ran under the lifeguard status that day." Quest planes were intercepted several times by fighters to clearly identify them, but they continued to move specimens. That was well over a decade after the creation of the Quest fleet.
It was introduced in 1988 as part of the laboratory operation of the pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham. Initially, the pilots flew twin-engine Cessna 310s, but later, faster turboprop TBM 700 business aircraft were added. When SmithKline Beecham sold its laboratory operations to Quest Diagnostics in 1999, the sample transport fleet went with them.
At that point, the demand for laboratory work and samples had grown so much that the company decided to purchase the PC-12, a larger single-engine turboprop from Switzerland that can carry more cargo and cruises at 270 knots (500 km / h) . with excellent fuel efficiency. Today Quest is flying nine PC-12s along with nine Beech B58 Barons and five Embraer Phenom 100s.
The piston twin baron is capable of cruising at 200 knots (370 km / h) at around 7,000 feet and is suitable for shorter flight distances, while the Phenom 100 is more efficient with two jets on longer distances in the western United States 30,000 Feet at 400 knots (740 km / h).
Enlarge /. All three types of aircraft currently operated by Quest Diagnostics are waiting for night work in the hangar. PC-12 sit on the left and right in front of the door. Beech barons are in the foreground on the left and in the middle. In the right foreground is an Embraer Phenom 100.
Photo by Steve Hockstein / HarvardStudio.com
But the PC-12 is probably the future of the Quest fleet. The load capacity and the average speed, altitude and fuel consumption values encourage the company to buy more. It fits well in size for a company that always evaluates its efficiency, including the use of the cargo space.
Well over a decade ago, Quest realized that the traditional hard coolers in which samples were transported contained a lot of "empty air," says Gordon. "So we patented our own soft-side cooler (in 2003). This freed up capacities of around 50 percent in all of our aircraft." All samples are packaged in the same sterile format for the aircraft, including the many COVID-19 samples that Quest transported to and from 12 different laboratory facilities during the crisis. Like more routine samples, they are managed with competitive teamwork.
NASCAR at night
"It's like a NASCAR pit crew when we land. There's a ground team waiting for us and there's a handover (of copies)," Gordon explains. Quest's pit stops (the aircraft lands 88 times a day at 63 domestic locations) often fuel and unload / load aircraft at the same time as pilots perform their next pre-takeoff checks and any updates to the flight schedule. The company wants to "spin" every airplane 20 minutes after it lands.
The broader process begins every morning after daylight. Maintenance teams appear at Quest's home airport in Reading, Pennsylvania, to inspect and / or repair the fleet, most of which return every night. The Quest dispatchers in Tampa, Florida check the weather, the schedule, possible delays or detours as well as the availability of aircraft.
The maintenance and shipping chiefs of Quest, the safety officer, the chief pilot and Scott Gordon will take part in a conference call at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. "There's always something out there that we evaluate," he says. This could include forecasts for thunderstorms, north easters, snow or even hurricanes, which could disrupt not only flight operations but also broader logistics, from ground delivery vehicles to hospitals or laboratories.
Quest pilots typically arrive at the airport 30 to 40 minutes before their flight at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. They check in with the dispatchers and go to their plane to go through their pre-flight controls. The routes they fly are relatively normal, as are their flight plans, which are already electronically loaded into the aircraft's avionics.
Each pilot consults a "route sheet" on which routes they fly back and forth and how many coolers are placed in their aircraft for transport to a destination. Usually the first departures from quest bases (also in Georgia, Texas and Missouri) are free of copies. The pilots talk to the supervisors about problems or weather / new stops with the dispatchers and then taxi to the start with an airplane full of empty coolers. If it sounds cold, it is not.
Quest pilots fly single pilot IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) operations. These are demanding in every airplane, especially at night in bad weather. Not surprisingly, pilots are generally highly qualified, multi-engine, or turbojet qualified drivers, usually with air transportation certifications. "This requires a special type of pilot," Gordon admits. "They are very clever, but they don't want to fly for the airlines and do a conventional job. They like the independence and the team atmosphere that we want to build here. They are also at home every night, which is quite rare."
On the way to Elmira, New York, or Denver, Colorado, in the dark, Quest pilots are known to the air traffic controllers, who also work in the third shift. When pilots switch to a new frequency on the go, they often recognize the voices of the controllers they work with every night, and vice versa. "We are very professional, which means that we are treated well by the controllers," says Gordon. "Time is important in our business, so shortcuts or direct routing can help us a lot."
Pilots log on to their dispatchers when they land at a destination, but they control their own ships while flying their routes.
Specimens are human
The Quest pilots usually remain seated. The company includes a number of people who have been there for over 20 years, including the pilot who made the first SmithKline Beecham sample delivery flight 32 years ago. The flying challenge, personal scope and job security are appealing. But the sense of mission gives them – and others in Quest's aviation department – additional motivation even in quieter times.
"Whether it's pilots, maintenance personnel, dispatchers, or even administrative staff, they see every copy as a person," Gordon confirms. "Patients are waiting for results, and some of them are vital to their health, life and death. We keep this in mind. It's a great thing to be part of. So I think a lot of people are involved are left to us. "
He adds that during the pandemic this feeling was more pronounced, the work more convincing.
At 2 a.m., the planes return to Reading and the other Quest bases with full coolers. The samples are handed over for ground transportation. Some hospital flights will continue until around 11 a.m. But most pilots roll in, switch off the engines, switch off the avionics and take a break – like the truckers or NORAD controllers – until the sun rises and sets again. Then, as always, they appear every evening.