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Furloughed pilot’s new project helps frontline health workers

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Many furloughed pilots haven't yet returned to the skies. Some are spending their time providing for health care workers. Courtesy Project Wingman

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As many nations ease restrictions and governments grapple with how to balance economic concerns with efforts to contain COVID-19, the World Health Organization has recorded the biggest one-day rise in cases of the virus.

Air travel is still at a minimum, meaning many furloughed pilots — like Emma Henderson, who works for one of Europe’s biggest airlines — haven’t returned to the skies. While she’s been grounded, Henderson co-founded Project Wingman, where airline crew volunteer at hospitals, supporting frontline health care workers in the U.K. and the U.S. by offering refreshments, conversation and a place to take a break.

Henderson told the BBC’s Victoria Craig how she’s been spending her time after the pandemic grounded half of the world’s planes. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Emma Henderson: We didn’t really know how widely it was going to affect everybody, obviously, for some time. I do remember thinking to myself on what turned out to be my last flight — we actually verbalized it in the flight deck saying, “You know, let’s make the most of this day because we don’t know when we’re going to do it again.” And then I came home for my days off the next day, not knowing if I’d be going back down to London at all. And drove on empty roads to empty airports and empty train stations and got an empty flight back home. And that was the last time I was down in London. So it was quite a time of uncertainty, obviously, for all of us as well.

Victoria Craig: Now, since you’ve been furloughed, you’ve also put some time and energy into this initiative called Project Wingman. Tell us about that. What are you doing and what is the goal?

Henderson: Yeah, so Project Wingman was set up only 16 weeks ago to provide a tea and empathy service to NHS frontline staff, as we saw there was a need for an extra layer of support — or, my favorite quote, actually, is “a warm blanket to wrap around the NHS,” at a time when everything has been very difficult for everybody. So we’ve set up in a room in a hospital. And often people will talk once they’ve got a cup of tea in their hands. And, it’s really as simple as that. It’s just being there for people to talk. And it might be about their day, but it’s more likely to be more sort of distraction therapy type things about our jobs, actually. And what’s it like flying a plane? And where do you fly to? And things like that. And NHS staff find that just as interesting as we find their jobs.

(Courtesy Project Wingman)

Craig: This project supports frontline health workers but what lessons have you personally taken away from it? Has it made you do some thinking about what your career looks like in a post-COVID world? Are you planning to return to the skies?

Henderson: Yeah, I think that the thing that’s really stood out to me has been how rewarding this experience has been for our volunteers, as well. Helping people is such a wonderful way of spending time that you would otherwise be, perhaps, wondering what the future holds. And yes, I think that everybody who flies will be hoping to return to work. None of us still really know what that’s going to look like. And when that starts to happen, then I’ll be very happy to be taking my seat in the left-hand side of an aircraft again. But until that day, and actually even after that point, Project Wingman is something that’s going to go on.

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