Pilot Steve Wendling never dipped below the clouds as he glided over pastures and fields. He kept the plane steady — always level with the white wisps passing by — as he headed across Missouri to deliver masks.

The U.S. Exercise Tiger Foundation launched its inaugural “Mask a Vet” campaign Sunday. The campaign’s goal is to fly custom masks to all 480,000 veterans living in Missouri.

The USTF, based in Columbia, is a veterans organization founded in 1989 with the aim of helping veterans and active military members. The “Mask a Vet” campaign, in particular, was thought up by USTF National Director Susan Haines and Executive Officer Walter Domanski.

“This is the largest-ever humanitarian mission that the USTF has ever done,” Domanski said. “The air war on COVID-19 has begun.”

Haines, Domanski and the rest of the USTF board decided flying by plane was the quickest way to get the most masks to the most veterans scattered around the state.

On Sunday’s mission alone, the USTF — along with the Kingdom Pilots Association, which volunteered its pilots for the mission — delivered 9,000 masks by air to other veterans organizations in Lee’s Summit and Hannibal.

The KPA is a nonprofit organization of volunteer pilots based in Fulton. The aviation organization annually hosts events that raise funds for flight training scholarships for local students interested in getting a pilot’s license.

KPA member Steve Wendling was one of two pilots who volunteered their planes for Sunday’s mission. Wendling, an experienced pilot with over 1,100 hours in the air, volunteered for the mission without hesitation.

“To me, this campaign is important because I was not able to serve in the military,” Wendling said. “This gives me the chance to give back and do a little something for well-deserving veterans who don’t have the access or means to get masks themselves.”

Wendling flew the 50-minute flight to Lee’s Summit with 10 boxes of masks stuffed in the rear of his cabin. On a runway just outside Kansas City, Wendling met with retired Senior Master Sgt. Larry Washington, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, and Susan Engle, executive director of St. Michael’s Veterans Center in Kansas City.

Washington, a veteran of the 442nd Fighter Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base, was thankful for the work the USTF is doing. “A lot of veterans are homeless and don’t have access to this stuff,” Washington said. “It’s extremely important what Sue (Haines) is doing here.”

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