Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Helping Haiti

Flying relief supplies to those in need

It started with an e-mail sent to my partner, Brian Reiff. Bahamas Habitat was looking for pilots with high-performance singles or twins to fly earthquake relief supplies to rural Haiti. The concept was simple: Fly from our home base in Carlisle, Pa., to pick up donated medical supplies in Johnston County, N.C. Next, fly to Fort Pierce, Fla., clear customs, and proceed to Nassua, Bahamas. After an overnight rest, we’d fly to Inagua, Bahamas, for fuel, and from there, fly into Haiti.

The Bahamas portion of the operation was coordinated by Abraham, Cameron and Matt, three young adults working with Bahamas Habitat. They were receiving supplies, planes and pilots, and in coordination with missionaries in Haiti, directing loads into remote Haitian airstrips.

Our first mission landed less than a week after the earthquake. That day, we were part of a three-plane operation. Brian flew with Matt in our Bonanza A36 to an airport near Les Cayes, in the island’s far southwest corner. He landed shortly after Ken DeYoung, an Iowa farmer flying a full load in his Cessna 340.

I hopped into a Baron E55 with Dave Robertson, an Alabama businessman who had been flying missions for three days. Our destination was Pignon, where we’d deliver food, water and medical supplies. We were to land in a grass strip described only as “25 miles on the 170-degree radial from Cap Haitien airport.” Dave set a waypoint for that general vicinity in his GNS 530 and pushed the “direct to” button. Ostensibly, we were to call Cap Haitien tower to “clear” into the country prior to moving inland. As we approached Haiti’s northern coast, we contacted the controller there and announced our intentions to “fly direct Pignon.” We then turned southeast and dipped under a menacing stack of clouds atop some steep and ominous-looking mountains.

Dave flipped to the 530’s terrain mode, and my job for the next 15 minutes was to hit the “clear” button to get the low-terrain warning off the screen so we could pick our way through the mountains. On the 530’s screen, reds and yellows surrounded our plane’s silhouette as we dodged through valleys into inner Haiti. Dave had thousands of hours in his Baron, and his well-honed skills came in handy. We finally found the airstrip, and after a low flyover to ensure no gear-busting potholes or washouts (and to scare off the goats), Dave performed a perfect soft-field landing.

A noisy twin in an otherwise tranquil countryside attracts attention, and our Baron was no exception. After a short taxi dodging cow patties, we instantly were met by a group of young men eager to assist with unloading. Soon after, our contact arrived to oversee the operation and ensure that our needed supplies moved in the right direction. The supplies would go to clinics just outside of Port-au-Prince.

We hopped back into the Baron and took off for Les Cayes. I chatted with Dave about the pros and cons of singles versus twins. He said he’d prefer a single “about 90% of the time.” He preferred the twin only when flying over water and in the mountains. We were using a lot of his other 10% on this flight.

Skirting Port-au-Prince airspace, we landed on Les Cayes’ concrete runway an hour later. We linked up with Brian and Ken, who were just finishing unloading their supplies. All of us headed back to Nassau, and after dodging some more mountains and flying over a lot more water, we landed around dusk. The entire round-trip time was about 10 hours.

The next day, it was my turn to fly the Bonanza. Dave had returned to Alabama so now this was a two-plane operation. We filled our A36 with medical supplies and followed yesterday’s path, returning to Les Cayes along with Ken’s 340. We left Haiti with a seven-person missionary family returning to the States. They were happy and grateful for the lift.

Upon returning to Nassau, we learned that more than 33 pilots were scheduled to arrive in the next few days to assist the operation. Brian and I decided to head home to tend to business affairs and try to beat some weather. Truly, this was the most rewarding flying I had ever experienced. Like Brian said, “When I read the e-mail, I instantly knew this is what I want to do.” I’m glad he took me along.

Bahamas Habitat is looking for volunteer pilots with aircraft. Visit Organizations with medical and other supplies to donate should e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

This is your column! We’d like to hear from you about your unforgettable flights. Please send your stories and photos to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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