The 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12 had an epicenter near Port-au-Prince
As we approach from the north, over the deep lapis Caribbean Sea that surrounds a crescent shore, Haiti suddenly appears. At 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck this country. It’s estimated that some 210,000 people died in the temblor. The land is green and mountainous and looks—from 6,500 feet—uninhabited. As I look down from a Beechcraft Baron that’s loaded to the headliner with medicine and food, I see only verdant valleys.
Not since the Berlin Airlift in 1948, when Western Allies flew 4,000 tons of supplies daily into the Soviet-blocked city, has the world seen as much need for airborne relief. A poverty-stricken island with little infrastructure and no building codes, Haiti seems poised on the brink of catastrophe. But general aviation has given people real hope. The Haiti disaster has demonstrated what aviation can do and how it can make a difference.
Making It Happen
At Odyssey Aviation, an FBO at Nassau Airport, Bahamas, pilots in jeans and T-shirts walk purposefully as carts overloaded with boxes labeled “IV fluids” and “exam gloves” are pushed to waiting airplanes, ranging from single-engine Cessnas to King Airs. The flight-planning room has a long queue, and pilots discuss such exotic-sounding locations as Les Cayes, Jacmel and La Gonave. This is base headquarters for the relief effort run by Bahamas Habitat (www.bahamashabitat.org).
About 70% of the homes in Jacmel, a town known for culture and arts, were destroyed.
The group was established to build homes and provide missionary work to islands in the Bahamas. When the earthquake struck, the group’s executive director, Abraham McIntyre, went into action mode—he hasn’t stopped since. “We’re running Delta Air Lines and FedEx,” laughs McIntyre, who isn’t yet 30, “and I see no sign of stopping.” He’s running the show with Cameron King, a 23-year-old long-term intern and multi-engine commercial pilot, and Matt Hansen, another fresh-faced volunteer and experienced pilot. Since the disaster, more than 120 pilots have responded to their calls for help, 400 flights have been flown, and 250,000 pounds of supplies and 250 passengers have been carried to and from seven airports in Haiti. Pilots donate their airplanes and fuel (the FBO offers a discount to relief pilots), and volunteer to fly sorties. McIntyre, King and Hansen have moved into a warehouse hangar, and they put in 16-plus-hour days, coordinating flights and sometimes flying sorties themselves.
|Haiti’s capital city. It’s estimated that 210,000 people died. General aviation has been serving an important role in relief efforts by delivering supplies daily to outlying towns such as Les Cayes.||GA pilots help deliver much-needed supplies to Haiti.|
Since the earthquake, many have fled the desperate conditions in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s largest city, where damage was at its worst. They’ve poured into smaller villages, but these outlying areas are unable to support the incoming throngs. The remote towns lack enough food and medicine, and the overrun orphanages and clinics lack even basic supplies. The people rely heavily on GA airplanes.
Each morning, pilots are briefed and airplanes are loaded for the long flight to Haiti. The donated supplies originate from a warehouse provided by Banyan Air Service in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Some airplanes also carry doctors or nurses. At loading time, everyone helps: millionaires, doctors, retirees and college students. There’s a sense of camaraderie that I can’t shake. I imagine this is why pilots who have flown in wars are so emotionally connected to their fellow crew members. These pilots all have looked into the hungry eyes of Haitian children. It’s need that binds everyone together.
Gerry Frumusa has been flying relief for three weeks with his Piper Lance. His airplane is something of a celebrity because it can carry him, 600 pounds of fuel and 700 pounds of anything that fits, and can land on unimproved strips. When his alternator gave out midstay, Banyan shipped him a replacement the next day. A U.S. Embassy aircraft mechanic gave up his lunch breaks to help put the alternator in. “This whole thing is about people,” says Frumusa. “One of these pilots could be wealthy, another one powerful, but everyone helps equally.”
Then there’s Charlie Zaloom, who came from Mattituck, N.Y., to volunteer his Cessna 180. Both he and Frumusa have been flying to less-secure airports, such as La Gonave. Between the two of them, they’ve flown some 15,000 pounds of supplies, much of it food. Both share stories of bringing rice, beans and cooking oil to people on the ground whom they’ve gotten to know personally. “This is currency,” said Zaloom, holding a small bag of rice, “and sometimes you give someone a bag or two for helping you.”
While people back home may be losing interest in something that’s happening in a faraway place, GA pilots still are providing hope in many areas of Haiti. “For many Haitians, small airplanes are it,” explains McIntyre. I hear stories of amputations being performed with only aspirin, and I’m shown photos of people with broken legs that had to be set using rebar from crumbled buildings. Pilots talk about orphanages and hospitals where children moan in pain through the night, without medication for limbs that have been amputated with hacksaws.
But GA has come to the rescue in a huge way. A Pilatus delivered an anesthesia machine that was donated by a medical group. Cessnas and Pipers carried hundreds of nested buckets with dialysis filters—originally designed to filter blood and urine—to remove contaminants from the muddy water many people drink, out of desperation. GA is bringing boxes of antibiotics to cut down on infections, and crutches for the thousands of new amputees. Volunteer pilots also are bringing in medical teams and surgical instruments.
I’m in a Beechcraft Baron with Tim Ormsby, the owner of a trucking company in Fort Wayne, Ind. We’re each nervous, since this will be our first trip to Haiti. Minutes ago, we were strangers; now I handle navigation and radios while Ormsby flies over seemingly endless waters. I review a yellow Post-it note on which another volunteer pilot, Drew Hollenbeck, has thoughtfully sketched a diagram of where we are to fly. We’ll be following 20 minutes behind air show performer Michael Mancuso, who’s volunteering his time in a Piper Navajo and is accompanied by P&P Editor Jessica Ambats.
The Haiti sorties have settled into a pattern: Most pilots fly from Nassau to the island of Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos chain, for fuel. It’s a 350 nm leg over nothing but open water, with a second leg of some 300 more miles into Haiti. Relief pilots take life jackets and rafts seriously, knowing that the currents below could drift them to the Atlantic by the time a search aircraft arrives. That is, if the sharks don’t get there first. We try to ignore these thoughts as we take in the incomparable views afforded by the Caribbean Sea, with its impossibly clear water and distant clusters of tiny tropical islands.
After “Provo” (the pilots’ nickname for Providenciales), radio communication is sparse or nonexistent. Miami Radio loses us about halfway to Haiti, but it’s crucial to stay clear of Cuba’s ADIZ, or we’ll be met by some fighter jets. Once into Haiti’s airspace, it’s “cowboy flying,” as the relief pilots call it. “If you’re IFR, you’re handed off to nobody,” says Frumusa, “and you’re on your own.” It feels like we’re over a country that time forgot. We monitor each other on 122.75 and self-announce our positions.
The land below looks like something out of Jurassic Park, with 7,000-foot mountains poking into puffy cumulus. Mancuso and Ambats announce their landing into Les Cayes, Haiti’s third-largest city, as Ormsby and I peer hard through the windows to locate the airstrip. We’re here to supply an orphanage and two medical clinics, and there’s a family of five and a team of doctors who need a lift back to Nassau.
Pulling up to the small ramp and opening the cargo doors for the locals to help unload the airplane, we discover a problem. The Navajo has a cracked propeller spinner bulkhead. The resulting vibration could tear the engine apart or cause something to break off in flight. It’s a serious issue that would ground the airplane back home. But leaving the airplane overnight in this remote corner of Haiti isn’t an option for Mancuso.
I notice little rivulets of sweat inching down his face, and it’s not just the ubiquitous Haiti humidity. I know Mancuso is weighing the possibilities of what he’s about to do: limp a wounded airplane above nearly three hours’ worth of open ocean, after a takeoff with the possibility of engine failure. Ambats moves to our Baron, and we watch as Mancuso carefully runs up the engine and starts his takeoff roll.
Right after rotation, the gear comes up, and the engine looks like it’s developing normal thrust. Mancuso banks the airplane immediately—to allow for a teardrop return to the runway in case of engine failure—in a brilliant bit of aviating. The Navajo starts to climb out toward the sea, and we take off minutes later. We stay in contact by radio, as Mancuso keeps an eye on his right engine. Hours later, the Navajo is back on the ground with a replacement part on the way, and Mancuso tells us he passed the time over the water peeling oranges. “Next thing I knew, two hours had gone by!” he laughs.
The Bond Of Service
The aid flights continue every day. Ambats and Mancuso travel to Jacmel where conditions are more desperate and graves are being dug for those who haven’t even died. Other pilots return with harrowing stories of hunger and suffering. More than anything, our days in Haiti prove the flexibility and responsiveness of general aviation. Our time with these pilots has allowed us to see aid going directly into the hands of those in need.
Though I’ve returned to the United States, I am, mentally, still in Haiti. A night hasn’t gone by when I don’t return there in my dreams, flying sorties with Gerry Frumusa, Drew Hollenbeck, Tim Ormsby, Michael Mancuso and all the others. “It’s like a drug,” says Frumusa about the experience. “I’ll never do anything in my life that will top this.” Charlie Zaloom agrees: “Next to my family, this is the most important thing I’ve ever done.” But none of these pilots want to be called a hero for what they’re doing. Each is simply putting their skills to work helping others.
|How You Can Help|
|Airserv.org Nonprofit accepting donations for flights into Haiti
Bahamashabitat.org Flying aid into Haiti from Nassau, Bahamas
Doctorswithoutborders.org Humanitarian medical organization
MAF.org Flying people and supplies
Missionaryflights.org Flying people and supplies
Nationalnursesunited.org Nonprofit sends nurses to Haiti
Thefutureofhaiti.org Rebuilding orphanages and flying supplies
WingsFFH.org Medical airlift and supplies to/from Haiti
|Bahamas Habitat is a U.S.-based nonprofit agency that provides housing and disaster relief to the islands of the Bahamas. When disaster struck Haiti, the group’s strong aviation focus allowed it to morph into an airlift operation in mere days. Three compassionate, determined young adults drive this relief effort. Using nothing more than cell phones, laptops, Skype and a conference-room table, they’re coordinating one of the most complex airlift operations in recent history. Each approaches the task of running this behemoth exercise in diplomacy with enthusiasm and dedication. They’re not heroes—just good folks doing their best to help in a difficult situation.
|A Day In The Life
We join Michael Mancuso on a relief flight to Jacmel
|Flying relief in Haiti is rewarding but not easy. Volunteers put in long days that start with predawn briefing sessions and conclude with late-night logistics planning. On a typical day, a pilot will log eight hours of flight, of which up to five are over water with little or no radio communications. Even with discounts from the FBO, flying this much daily can quickly consume thousands of dollars of fuel. But the pilots tell us that the flights are addictive, and none of them want to leave in spite of the exhausting flying and emotionally difficult experiences. Air show performer Michael Mancuso flew more than 130 hours in 20 days on 17 volunteer trips. He faced challenges that included a broken spinner bulkhead in Haiti.
I joined Michael in a Piper Navajo owned by Pat Dolan on a supply sortie into Jacmel, considered to be the cultural capital of Haiti. Approximately 70% of the homes in Jacmel were damaged, with up to 500 killed and 4,000 injured. Relief efforts were initially slow to Jacmel because of the focus on Port-au-Prince, but the Canadian government subsequently set up a base of operations with a fleet of CH-146 Griffon helicopters and additional support from C-130 Hercules aircraft. On this day, Michael and I delivered 1,400 pounds of medical supplies and food. Our round-trip flight from Nassau, Bahamas, to Jacmel, Haiti, included stopping for fuel twice and clearing immigrations and customs three times, and totaled more than 12 hours.
5:30 a.m. It’s still dark outside when the alarm goes off in my Nassau hotel room, but my grogginess is overcome by an eager anticipation of what the day has in store. I meet Michael and the group of volunteer pilots in the lobby and we board a van to the airport.
6:00 a.m. A hot breakfast is waiting at Odyssey Aviation, the FBO that Bahamas Habitat has converted into its “command center.” Our food, much like everything else, has been donated. Between bites, pilots discuss where they’re going for the day and swap notes. Rick Redfern, an accomplished fiddle musician from Texas, is making runs in his Cessna 210. Stuart and Tracey Smith are here from Southern California in their Cirrus SR22, loaded with Beanie Babies donated by children. There’s a King Air 90, a Cessna 182 and several other planes on the ramp. Matt Hansen briefs each pilot individually. He cautions Michael and me that a King Air previously suffered a landing incident at our destination, Jacmel, because the runway has a big hump in the middle. “It was overgross, and it landed really hard on the up-sloping runway,” Hansen explains. Even though Michael has made several runs to Haiti, this’ll be his first time to Jacmel.
6:30 a.m. Michael removes the back seats from the Navajo to accommodate several extra-large, heavy-duty tents. We’re also bringing medical supplies, ranging from syringes and IV fluids to toilet seats and casts. Our wing lockers are filled with food. We file our flight plan and fuel up.
7:00 a.m. At 7,368 pounds, we’re just 32 pounds under gross weight. At gross weight, we can still climb on only one engine, although I don’t want to put that to the test. Even though we used scales to verify cargo weight, Michael is wary of overloading the aircraft. During the takeoff briefing, he reminds me that given the 11,500-foot runway, we can abort even after liftoff. We roll down runway 14 and gently lift off to a glistening turquoise scene over the cowling. We turn on a heading to the Turks and Caicos Islands—there’s no fuel in Haiti, so we’ll need to make a stop at Providenciales.
8:00 a.m. We’re halfway through the 347 nm leg from MYNN to MBPV. Sometimes we’re over, or within gliding distance of, a chain of islands, but mostly it’s just water below us. Andy Scanlan is flying runs in a Cessna 182, also owned by Pat Dolan. We chat with him on 122.75, the company frequency. When he loses contact for a while, we pass the time with a few lighthearted jokes about the Bermuda Triangle.
9:00 a.m. The clear waters and luxury resorts of the Turks and Caicos islands are underneath. We land on runway 10 and backtaxi on the runway. “Provo’s Only FBO,” reads the hangar in giant, faded-blue letters. Inside are complimentary peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for relief workers. We clear customs, get fuel and file a flight plan for our next leg.
9:45 a.m. We’re low (3,500 feet) and over lots of water (212 nm), but there’s a decent tailwind (10 knots). Michael seems completely at ease. But I think about Ariane Randall, a girl from my high school who was in an airplane accident off Haiti and drifted for 36 hours in the water until she was rescued by fishermen. Or rather, I try not to think about her.
10:30 a.m. Near Haiti, the Garmin map shows we are abeam Cuban airspace. There are low-level clouds along the Haitian coast, on our direct route. We call Port-au-Prince on the radio, but we don’t get them. As we enter IMC, we start a right climbing turn, watching the Garmin’s terrain screen. We continue the climb until all of the red has turned yellow or disappeared. We cross the mountain range, and the sky opens up on the other side over Gonave Bay.
10:45 a.m. Everything looks nice from the air. As we approach Port-au-Prince, we see big ships in the harbor, sandy shores and colorful houses. From 6,500 feet, there’s no apparent sign of disaster. But as we descend and circle over downtown, we see that the big ships belong to the Red Cross, the colorful houses are tents, and the empty spaces are filled with rubble. There are no cars, and we don’t see any signs of movement.
11:00 a.m. A southwesterly heading brings us over steep green hills dotted with houses hanging onto the ridgelines.
11:30 a.m. We’re on final for Jacmel Airport. Departing is a Canadian C-130 that had just off-loaded an aircraft rescue and firefighting truck. As we roll out on runway 18, we see the aforementioned King Air in the grass to the side. Its props have seen straighter days. We’re greeted by the Canadian military, which has set up base ops and a makeshift control tower. Haitians are eager to help us unload the cargo.
12:30 p.m. Motorcycle “taxis” bring us into town. The randomness of the earthquake is apparent—one house is in perfect condition, whereas the next one is in piles of rubble. The streets overflow with people in every direction; there are long lines at the gas station. We walk through a tent city. It’s crowded and unsanitary, and has an overpowering smell. But the morale seems high; children smile, and one large tent is converted into a music stage.
1:00 p.m. We visit the hospital, or what’s left of it. The pediatrics unit is destroyed, with the exception of a partial wall that bears a faded Mickey Mouse image. Patients are crowded into tents. Not far from them, we watch as workers dig graves into the earth. We inquire if all of the earthquake victims haven’t already been buried, and we’re told that these graves are in anticipation of patients who will pass away in the near future. “GA is making a difference, moving doctors and supplies. But the relief effort is a Band-Aid,” Michael comments. “A bigger solution will be needed long-term.”
3:00 p.m. On takeoff, it’s a strange feeling to transition from the devastation in Haiti to our relatively normal flying routine. We can still smell the tent city. To take our minds off of earthquakes, shark-infested waters and everything else, we pass the time entering checklists for the Navajo into the Garmin 530. Michael studies flash cards of emergency procedures that he has prepared. I don’t think about Ariane. We’re briefly in contact with Miami Approach, and other airplanes occasionally ask us to relay their transmissions to the controllers.
5:00 p.m. Descending over catamarans and tennis courts on approach to Provo, we’re struck by the contrast between the Turks and Caicos and Haiti. As we’re refueling, a Columbia 400 arrives with an orphaned Haitian girl who can’t be more than seven years old. It’s her first time in an airplane, and her first time out of Les Cayes. She’ll continue to Miami, and tonight, she’ll airline to Minnesota, where her adoptive family is waiting. And I thought our day was a challenge.
6:00 p.m. In the Caribbean, VFR flight isn’t allowed at night. The sun is starting to set, so we radio Nassau and file IFR. A large orange sun dips below distant clouds, and then the horizon. I’m still in awe of how much water we’re over. I think about P&P Senior Editor Bill Cox, who makes regular ferry flights over the Pacific and Atlantic. I hear all sorts of engine sounds. I constantly check cylinder head temps.
9:00 p.m. It’s difficult not to feel guilty, lounging around, eating fresh grouper and laughing over a few Bahamian beers. Only a few hours have passed, but we’ve crossed worlds. We meet new volunteers who’ll be making flights the following day, and everyone gets organized.
10:00 p.m. I’m exhausted. And today was only my first flight delivering supplies. Michael has already made several, and others have been here for weeks, flying daily. The amount of dedication and donation is impressive. I set the alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. and look forward to another adventure in Haiti.
|As The World Shakes
GA to the rescue in Chile
|While the world’s eyes were still focused on the destruction in Haiti, a massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile during the early morning hours of February 27. Though Chile is a country well-prepared for earthquakes, the intense shaking, country-wide blackouts and devastating tsunami that followed left thousands in need of basic supplies. Once again, general aviation proved its ability to access remote areas and respond quickly and effectively. In Chile as in Haiti, GA has assumed a primary role in providing relief.
Jaime Hernandez is the general manager of AeroTrust Chile (www.aerotrust.cl), an FBO providing aerial tours, photography and pipeline patrol services in aircraft ranging from Cessnas to Robinson helicopters. After the earthquake, the Chilean Air Force helped organize GA pilots—including Hernandez—to fly supplies into areas where key bridges had been destroyed. “It took something like this to show the authorities how valuable our airfields and airplanes are,” says Hernandez. “But we’ve demonstrated it now.” Hernandez adds that the challenges of flying in these remote areas are nothing new to local pilots. “Oh, just short and soft fields,” Hernandez laughs. “Chile is easy to fly!”
Journalists Erik Schaffer and Silvia Stock report that the Santiago Flying Club has been airlifting vital food and medical supplies into the affected zone. Businessman and pilot Jaime Colvin has made several puente aéreo (air bridge) flights to Isla Mocha, 22 miles out in the Pacific, where the tsunami flattened most of the houses in the island’s only settlement. Chilean celebrities who are also pilots are helping with the effort, including tennis star Fernando Gonzalez and Chilean soccer coach Marcelo Bielsa.