Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Cowboys & Angels
In Haiti, general aviation pilots are making a measurable difference
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.
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