My timing couldn’t have been worse. On Monday, August 29, 2005, I boarded an American Airlines 767 out of Los Angeles and headed for Orlando, Fla., well aware that Hurricane Katrina was scheduled to come ashore at exactly the same time when we’d be passing overhead. The storm had grown taller than 50,000 feet, far above the maximum altitude of a 767, and was directly in our flight path.
While waiting in the boarding line, I stuck my head in the cockpit and asked the captain how we would dodge the storm, and he explained that the computer had laid out a new route well north of the Gulf Coast. We would fly up over Arkansas and Tennessee before turning south over Georgia. He assured me that we would probably not even bust a cloud.
The computer was wrong. Halfway across Oklahoma, the captain came on the public-address system and advised flight attendants to suspend all services and take their seats. The ride became progressively rougher as we bounced through the chop, and everyone was confined to their seats for the last two hours of the flight in some of the worst turbulence I’ve experienced in an airliner.
Two days later, my business concluded, I launched out of Daytona Beach, Fla., in my Mooney and headed toward Long Beach, Calif. The storm was now long gone, dissipated to a series of rainstorms in the Ohio River Valley, but I felt almost guilty as I drifted along above a now-placid Mobile Bay in Alabama. No one knew the full extent of the damage on the Gulf Coast. We only knew that it was bad, especially in one of my favorite cities, New Orleans. No one could guess that it would be the worst disaster in American history.
I cruised along, snug and comfortable at 10,500 feet above it all, far up on top of the heat haze of August Alabama, relaxing in my plush Oregon Aero seat. Paul Desmond was playing on the CD, the sky was smooth and cool, and I reveled in clear air and sunshine, clocking 155 knots into the wind toward Monroe, La., and eventually on to Long Beach. It didn’t seem quite fair that I should be cool and comfortable traveling in the comparative lap of luxury, while so many people below were so miserable.
I rationalized my overflight on the premise that there was probably nothing I could do to help, anyway. Most airports along the coast were still under water or severely damaged from the wind. Also, the FAA apparently didn’t want my help. Soon after Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, the feds placed a series of TFRs along the beach, straddling the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The initial ceiling was established at 5,000 feet to discourage lookeeloos without blocking the direct transit route between the Southeast and Southwest.
As I looked down from two miles above the Deep South, there was little visible sign of the devastation that was progressively displacing nearly a million people. Like my eastbound airline flight, I deliberately flight-planned well north of the standard Great Circle route, 70 miles north of New Orleans and even Baton Rouge, La., where state and federal relief aircraft were gathering for the largest rescue effort in American history.
I landed in Monroe, happy that there was fuel available at “only” $3.25 per gallon. In hindsight, my concern about paying an extra $1 per gallon seemed incredibly selfish, considering the misery the residents of the Gulf Coast endured. Monroe was on the western fringe of the relief effort, but there were Black Hawk and twin-rotor Banana helicopters operating regularly from the ramp. Only three days after the hurricane, the city was packed with relief workers. Those residents of southern Louisiana who could afford it had evacuated to the north and booked every hotel in town, from the Motel Six to the Marriott. Having the benefit of not being a victim, I thought the emergency response seemed anything but slow.
I continued on through Ada, Okla., Plainview, Texas, Albuquerque, N.M., and Cottonwood, Ariz., to California, but back on the Gulf Coast, the major general-aviation support effort was already beginning. It seems that the only time we make the news is when someone crashes or strays into a presidential TFR, but “those little airplanes” often play a little-known, vital role when there is a national emergency. Following Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of pilots stepped in to help when there were few other resources available.
Pilots of Angel Flight Southeast volunteered early on, dedicating their time and airplanes for whatever duty was necessary. Despite a few false starts associated with government inefficiency, Angel Flight was soon flying regularly in and out of the Mississippi and Louisiana area, eventually operating as many as 100 flights a day in support of medical and supply missions.
Operation Brother’s Keeper also swung into action with 164 aircraft. Several squadrons of the Civil Air Patrol began dedicating all their resources to the rescue effort, volunteering 3,200 hours of work in the first five days after the disaster. The Texas Aviation Association dedicated a dozen volunteer pilots and aircraft to the relief effort, and even the Commemorative Air Force donated the time and expense of two aircraft, a C-47 and an A26, to rescue and support.
This doesn’t begin to credit the dozens of other general-aviation organizations and hundreds of other individual pilots who contributed to the relief and relocation effort, donating their time and operating expense to fly in supplies or evacuate thousands of hurricane victims. One pilot of a Cessna Cardinal RG flew in 480 pounds of food and water on his own volition. Another aviator flew his Beechcraft 36 Bonanza to Baton Rouge (BTR) and evacuated a family of three to St. Louis, Mo. Yet a third pilot, with a Cessna 414, flew out five refugees from BTR to Nashville, Tenn.
Incredibly, there were those on the ground who apparently didn’t appreciate the efforts of rescue and relief aircraft, whether government or private, and elected to shoot at them. Sadly, the rescue aircraft weren’t armed. If they had been, the people doing the shooting might have gotten what they deserved.
This is being written two weeks into the aftermath, and the situation in New Orleans, Gulfport, Miss., and other hard-hit cities has at least stabilized, if not dramatically improved. Water levels are falling, most of the city of New Orleans is back under civil control, and some parts of the Gulf Coast are returning to a semblance of normalcy. Once again, like so many times in the past, private aircraft lent assistance when nothing else could do the job.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].