Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cowboys & Angels

In Haiti, general aviation pilots are making a measurable difference

A Day In The Life

We join Michael Mancuso on a relief flight to Jacmel
By Jessica Ambats
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.


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