“General aviation pilots are an untapped national resource,” says Fred Quarles.
He reached that conclusion after organizing a phenomenally successful effort to rescue survivors of Hurricane Katrina, many of whom were facing imminent death.
Quarles, who operates an international aircraft delivery service based in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized the rescue effort, called Operation Teacup, immediately after Katrina’s wind stopped. He got on the telephone around 2 a.m., he said, and the first rescue flight left the ground around 4:30 p.m.
He didn’t do it alone, as he is the first to say. In fact, his first call was to Baldy Ivy of Seligman, Arizona, whose PilotShareTheRide.com organization has some 3,000 members. The two quickly built a web site at Teacup.cjb.org, where pilots with a range of skills and aircraft types could volunteer by entering information into what Quarles calls “buckets.” Within hours, about 1,000 pilots had offered their services.
“We were signing up about one a minute,” Quarles states. As pilots were volunteering electronically, Quarles was on the telephone to ground-based volunteers at Louisiana State University, who went to special needs shelters, located survivors who needed immediate medical care, and called Quarles.
Quarles’ computer sorted and stored the information it received from pilots. “When I got a request needing, say, a twin capable of carrying someone out of Baton Rouge at night, I’d go to the appropriate bucket, call someone, and ask ‘how soon can you go?'” Quarles said. The pilots “wanted to fly, wanted to do good deeds,” he said.
Quarles says that he can’t really determine how many missions were flown. “Pilots would get there and would be walking around and people would ask if they could fly someone else out. Many of them flew the Operation Teacup mission, then went back for others we don’t know about.” Everyone the pilots were asked to fly got flown, Quarles says with tones both of awe and admiration in his voice.
“I know that one multi-engine pilot flew 15 trips,” he added. Operation Teacup got its name because large numbers of small airplanes were involved. Quarles likened it to thousands of individual pilots “trying to bail out a swamp with teacups.”
He expresses great pride in the pilots.
“There was no fuss,” he says. “Nobody knew they were there. They paid their own bills, didn’t gripe, got no sleep and little thanks for their hard work.”
Pilots told Quarles that they would get to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and see such unimaginable devastation that “they didn’t think they were doing that much to help,” Quarles says, “but in retrospect it really was a lot.”
There were no accidents, he emphasizes.
While some FBOs took advantage of the situation to charge high fuel prices, Quarles is quick to say that many offered discounts to Operation Teacup volunteers. One, at Atlanta, not only gave a substantial fuel discount but its employees had clothes, toys and other needs ready for arriving survivors, he said.
Quarles is convinced that GA pilots could be organized on a national scale to respond to emergencies such as hurricanes. While there are many organizations doing just that, individually, he would like to see one resource center where all of them could be coordinated.
He points out that Operation Teacup directly involved aircraft owner associations from Virginia, North Carolina and Texas, in addition to individual volunteers. He complimented the good work done by Angel Flight and other groups utilizing corporate aircraft, “but we flew a lot of people that they couldn’t fly, because most of their airplanes are bigger.”
He also believes that airports could be utilized more effectively, across disaster areas, with central coordination. “There are 521 airports in Louisiana,” he said, “but most of our volunteers were only allowed to use two.”
A shelter volunteer at Baton Rouge told one Operation Teacup pilot, “You got more people out alive than the government did.” Quarles acknowledges that its an exaggeration, “but there is some truth to it.”
Hurricane Katrina has been out of the news for a long time, now, but Operation Teacup is still helping its survivors, Quarles says. He’s not sure when the effort will end.
“I hope one day to have a big party” when it does, he concludes.