This past week has been the most incredible period in my aviation career. Filling the role of a peripherally small cog in a big, very important general aviation wheel, I was able to see first-hand the importance of GA to the public at large and, just as critically, the unassailable value of exceptional organizational skills and dedication being brought to bear in a time of great need.
Early last week my days were split between doing my normal work routine and prepping the house for a hurricane that was headed our way. I’ve experienced quite a few hurricanes in my lifetime. The one thing that’s evident after your first couple is the realization that the projected track is probably wrong. Meteorologists update them frequently, bringing the errors down to smaller and smaller degrees, which in hindsight makes them look eerily accurate. In advance of the storm, they’re anything but.
My neighborhood is well inland, but with a Category 5 storm on the way, storefronts and homes are boarded up. Everything that can be secured is secured. Then the waiting begins.
Tom Petty was right. The waiting is the hardest part.
Yet Hurricane Dorian didn’t come ashore in Florida. Instead it slowed, then stopped, over the northern Bahamas. For two days it churned up the seas, whipped the islands with incredible wind, blew down structures that served as homes and businesses, crushed and sank ships, tossed aircraft into the air, then smashed them back into the ground with killer force.
If you’ve never experienced a hurricane, you may have no point of reference. The devastation left behind is akin to what’s left of a village after two warring armies have moved on. It’s tragic. Now ramp that up by several factors and you’ll have an idea of what the Bahamas experienced for two solid days.
As my neighbors and I breathed a sigh of relief that our community was spared, the realization set in quickly that others weren’t so lucky. That sense wasn’t confined to my neighborhood, however. It was felt far and wide by folks who know the shattering reality a natural disaster can leave in its wake.
The winds were still high when I got the call. My mission was to relocate to southern Florida to coordinate logistics for the relief effort that would be needed as quickly as it could be put into action. I packed up, mounted up, and left.
When I walked through the door at my destination, there were two people there. Mark Baker, president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), and Tom Haines, AOPA’s editor in chief. Both had traveled more than 1,000 miles to be on site. I was number three. Unseen were more than a dozen other players, many of whom called in to our command center twice a day to get things rolling and keep the effort up and running.
No one person deserves credit for putting together the aerial flotilla that came about over the next 12 hours. But every single one of the people involved deserves a level of admiration and respect that comes from recognizing they were on the forefront of a life-saving effort that worked. People from all over the landscape gave up their regular routines, took time off from work, found child-care providers, and generally did whatever it took to get to the airport to do the work of angels.
Streams of cars arrived at general aviation airports to drop off donated supplies. People went shopping just to buy the materials they wanted to send to the affected areas. Well-organized charity groups pulled together hangar space, developed command centers, and set up shop with a card table and a cell phone.
Volunteers sorted and packed donated items. Companies cut an aircraft from the herd and sent it to haul freight. Individual owners flew their aircraft to the pick-up points to load and deliver goods to places where they would find no fuel — indeed, no amenities of any kind.
I was fortunate enough to witness civic-minded charity at its very best.
For a brief time, confusion and chaos reigned supreme, as it often does in the wake of a natural disaster. Add to the normal disorientation of all those folks working together for the first time to do something they’ve never done the complexity of crossing an international border to deliver those supplies, and the logistical issues become a real challenge.
But the push continued. Conference calls put the FAA, the US Coast Guard, and the Customs and Border Protection together with representatives of the volunteer organizations that were poised to deliver supplies and things started coming together quickly. The Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority was looped in and consulted throughout.
People were injured, hungry, homeless, and literally dying for lack of infrastructure and basic services just a short flight away. Thank goodness people with the capacity to help joined forces with those who have a responsibility to protect their citizens to begin the process of saving the day.
If you know the story of British soldiers stranded at Dunkirk in 1940, you know what happened next. The parallels are inescapable. A virtual armada of general aviation aircraft, stocked and piloted by volunteers, flew just over the horizon to a foreign land to rescue people who had run out of luck and had little hope left. But rescue came. It came quickly. It came to the exact spots it was needed. It came by helicopter and it came on fixed wings. Supplies were delivered to airports all over Grand Bahama Island, Abaco, and the nation’s capital at Nassau.
On the other end of those flights, people who had lost everything knew for certain they hadn’t been forgotten or forsaken. And just like that, hope was restored.
This week governmental agencies will play a much larger role. Ships capable of carrying a thousand passengers at a time will replace Caravans capable of carrying a dozen. Military aircraft carrying many tons of goods will take to the skies, flying the routes Cessnas and Pipers and Pilatus were flying just days before.
General aviation pilots and enthusiasts took it on themselves to get into the game to literally save lives last week. I have never been so proud to be a small peripheral cog in the enormous general aviation wheel – because I know for a fact that when bad things happen, general aviation is the fastest, most reliable, absolutely dependable option to get help to those who need it most, right now.
Yes, I absolutely love general aviation. Not just because of what it does for me, but also for what it can do and has done for people who don’t even know they need us – until they suddenly realize they do.
Knowing we will be there, ready to go, and willing to serve, makes me awfully proud to be a participant. I hope it does the same for you.