How a Pilatus PC-12 Helped Reopen the Second Largest School District in the US

Clinical laboratory SummerBio flies 25,000 COVID-19 test samples daily.

In April, the Los Angeles Unified School District reopened for in-person classes for the first time in more than a year. With 660,000 students and 63,000 staff at more than 1,300 schools, LAUSD comprises the second largest school district in the country.

One of LAUSD’s requirements for reopening was access to rapid and extensive COVID-19 testing. That’s where N797GM is lending a helping hand. The Pilatus PC-12, owned by clinical laboratory SummerBio, is used to transport 25,000 COVID-19 test samples daily for schools, universities, and other customers. SummerBio employs three pilots to fly two flights daily from Van Nuys Airport (KVNY) in the greater Los Angeles area to Palo Alto Airport (KPAO) in northern California.

“Our PC-12 is critical to achieving our mission of highly reliable, rapid turnaround test results,” said Ben Hochman, director of aviation at SummerBio. “Schools can get results fast enough that families can decide if it’s safe for their children to go to class before the next school day.”

Loading cargo into the back of an airplane.
The Pilatus PC-12’s large cargo door makes it a suitable transport for carefully loaded cargo. SummerBio

SummerBio was selected by the LAUSD from among 22 other bidders because of the company’s ability to provide high volume and rapid turnaround PCR tests at low cost. The lower cost and faster turnaround time are achieved using robotic processing and automated liquid handling.

Schools are provided with proprietary kits for collecting samples using nasal swabs. Test samples are delivered by courier from schools to The Park VNY, where SummerBio has an office and staging area. After being registered and packaged for transport, the samples—which don’t require special handling—are loaded into the PC-12 for the 70-minute flight to KPAO. From there, it’s a five-minute drive to the diagnostic lab in Menlo Park.

The door-to-door process from sample collection to laboratory processing can be accomplished in less than two hours. More than 95 percent of results are reported by 5:00 a.m. the next morning, and 99.9 percent within 24 hours.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to combine a passion for aviation with an impactful community service,” said Hochman. “Everyone we interact with from fuelers to mechanics to air traffic controllers has been exceptionally supportive, which allows us to streamline the operation and deliver test results day after day without fail. General aviation is literally saving lives every day.”


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