Delivering Hope

DC-3 pilots fly the Bermuda Triangle to help a starving nation

August 1, 2003

We're airborne, and Haiti lies 600 miles from West Palm Beach, Florida, where Missionary Flights International (MFI) is based. That's only four and a half hours by Douglas DC-3 (if there is a tailwind), but light-years away from the life we all know. All those drivers down there on Interstate 95 as we cross the coast eastward may be wondering which restaurant they will choose tonight. The people in the town of Cap-Haïtien, our destination, wonder where they will find food.

Pilot Dick Snook, president of MFI and captain of our flight, and copilot Kenny Gumpel have a dream job by any general aviation pilot's definition. They'll cruise the tropics today with the cockpit window open to escape the heat, stopping for fuel at Exuma International Airport in the Bahamas on the way out and Providenciales International Airport (called Provo in pilot slang) in the British-owned Turks and Caicos Islands on the way back. The Caicos stop is necessary because there isn't enough fuel in Cap-Haïtien to supply the three MFI DC-3s that will visit today. Snook and Gumpel will see schools of manta rays gliding in turquoise water just before landing at Provo today and admire the beachside mansions there of famous recording stars such as Madonna.

The airplane I am riding in turned 59 this year, but chief mechanic Larry Campbell has the 1,300-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engines purring like a new car. It takes almost constant maintenance using two workshops mounted on the back of trucks to keep them that way.

Of course, Snook and Gumpel will be in the Bermuda Triangle most of the day, but that has never caused a problem. Oh, there was one time, Snook says, that he watched a black dot on the horizon to avoid having a midair with it. After a few minutes it disappeared. Gumpel jokes, for those who press him, that ghost squadrons sometimes fly formation with them. The clouds plant deep-black shadows on the glassy waters that appear to be islands. Chase them and you'll run out of fuel before you find land.

Sounds like an adventurous life. Ready to e-mail your résumé to MFI? (Warning, their pilot candidates have thousands of hours of DC-3 time and must raise their own salaries from church groups and volunteers.) Better hear the rest of the story. The rewards and the dangers are greater than you think.

The dangers

Logistics are difficult considering we are carrying 13 passengers and hundreds of pounds of supplies and mail. All of that requires coordination, sorting, and communication. The pilots do it all. In fact, Gumpel had a mechanic's shirt on yesterday and worked on the right engine of our aircraft, N300MF. Flight planning includes a few steps you never have to worry about when headed for that $100 hamburger or business destination. The night before each flight Snook checks with missionaries in Haiti to get a forecast of the political climate. The news last night wasn't so good: The roadblocks were up.

Roadblocks go up and down all the time, and have for years. Sometimes they mean trouble. Challenge one and you'll find out just how much trouble. Citizens throw them up to protest their economic conditions, but sometimes it isn't the citizens. It can be the local police, or citizens hired by the government to protest the protesters. It doesn't matter why they're up; missionaries have learned never to challenge them. However, if the missionaries can't get to the airport to board the plane, meet passengers, or pick up cargo, there is no reason for MFI to fly that day.

Our flight had been delayed for more than an hour at Palm Beach's Galaxy Aviation FBO until a missionary in Cap-Haïtien used a satellite phone to report that "traffic is moving." That meant that the local people didn't expect any violence despite the roadblocks. We could fly.

The cargo carried is often unusual. We have no goats on board today; that was last week. Eighteen of the critters flew in animal carrier cages to replace those exhausted in the fight against poverty. A goat's lot in Haiti is not a happy one. Upon arrival at the airport they are subject to theft — healthy goats look delicious to hungry Haitians. Surviving that, the goats face a life of nonstop breeding to replenish the herd. If that doesn't kill them, they may starve to death like the people.

Horses have been flown in, but mostly the cargo is the standard supplies needed by missionary families and ranges from bug spray to Bibles; some of the more unusual items include furniture, well-drilling equipment, and in today's load aboard one of the aircraft, two 1,000-pound air conditioners for a mission hospital near a dirt strip in Pignon, Haiti.

Violence is not uncommon. In November 2002 the wife of an American doctor was shot five times by a gunman outside her bedroom window. Bars on the window prevented the assailant from seeing that it was her, not her brother, who lived at that address. Her brother is an advisor to Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. MFI flew her to West Palm Beach where she was treated and survived. Snook made several calls to arrange hospital care after the first one he tried — one that has an educational exchange program with the woman's husband — insisted it didn't take trauma cases.

Violence came to MFI firsthand in 1993 when a desperate Haitian hijacked a DC-3 flown by Capt. Sam Bullers. The gunman sneaked aboard the aircraft as it was loading and took a missionary's wife hostage, accidentally discharging his gun into the aircraft floor. Snook spent long hours on the phone with government officials before getting the aircraft released to fly the hijacker to Florida. No one was injured and the hijacker has since been deported to Haiti. Today Bullers is the one flying the air conditioners to Pignon in the country's interior where 10 men will wrestle them off the aircraft and onto a 2.5-ton truck.

The rewards

Sitting in the back of Snook's aircraft today is a 21-year-old Haitian woman named Margarette who epitomizes what relief efforts in Haiti are all about. Margarette spent her youth trying not to die. When she was 17 she weighed 42 pounds — starvation was winning. Now better, she had accompanied missionary Dorothy Frederickson on a business trip to Florida because Frederickson needed someone to care for her, and Margarette is headed home today. She is very shy but very proud that she has just learned to read (her language is French Creole). Snook and Gumpel need only look at Margarette to realize the rewards of their work. Frederickson insists she feels little personal danger in Haiti, although someone tried to rob her using a machine gun. "I stepped on the gas," she says.

It's little more than two hours to Exuma, our first fuel stop. The tower controller there is known for giving weather reports in two words: "It's OK." Pilots don't mind, though, because controllers also relay breakfast orders for their passengers to the airport restaurant that serves a standard eggs, toast, and sausage meal for $3. Fruit? No. Pastries? No. Toast? OK.

The flight from Exuma to Cap-Haïtien offers me a chance to find out about the work of other passengers in Haiti. They don't fly for free, by the way; some have paid up to $450 because of the large amount of baggage they must transport. One woman says she will teach music and English while her daughter, Melody, will work with disabled orphans.

Across an entire row, two passengers on the left side of the airplane and two on the right, sit two couples who will survey a river called Trois Rivieres (Three Rivers) near Port-de-Paix, a coastal town west of Cap-Haïtien, in preparation for building a bridge. The river is filthy, but is nonetheless used for bathing, truck washing, and laundry. The 200-foot-wide river separates the population from its hospital, and when it floods some patients take the doors off refrigerators and attempt to paddle to the doctor. Others try to swim. Some make it but "lots of people die," one of the engineers says.

Up front, near the galley with its unending supply of hot chocolate and doughnut holes, sits the family of Dr. Mark Pearson, including a new puppy, Sammy. Pearson can't practice in the city — local doctors might object because they see it as competition. So he has an outreach program to provide medical care and education in rural areas. He travels by day with lots of people (for safety) and gets back by nightfall to avoid the robbers.

While I am interviewing my fellow passengers Gumpel is flying the gentle giant by finger-touch control, flicking the trim wheel occasionally as people move about the cabin. There is no autopilot. We had left West Palm Beach in the rain and did not break out until reaching our cruising altitude of 9,000 feet — at 475 feet per minute.

The mountains of Haiti come into view — a peak in the central part of the country reaches our altitude — again it is 9,000 ft. We've done 160 to 180 knots groundspeed on the way over, thanks to a brisk tailwind that foretells a slow trip home. We pass the mouth of the Trois Rivieres and continue eastward. The country could attract a lot of tourists with its beauty if only the tourists weren't afraid. Just before turning inland we spot a luxury cruise ship anchored offshore at a remote location five miles ahead. The cruise ship company built a secluded resort for the safety of its passengers and tells them they have arrived at "Mystery Island" to keep them from knowing they are in Haiti.

When the city comes into view it is obvious the suburbs and hills are filled with partially completed homes — walls with no roofs. The owners won't be able to afford the roofs for a few more years. Snook glides to a smooth wheel landing in a fenceless meadow next to the runway. Cows graze dangerously near. The weeds hide a ditch that keeps them away, but if they were smart cows they would spot a bridge leading to better grass within feet of the runway. The goats need no bridge, easily negotiating the ditch. Later, when we back-taxi for takeoff, a goat will cross in front of us.

The DC-3 pivots to a tiedown in front of the wooden terminal — a shack by U.S. airport standards — that is jammed with people. "Stay right with me," Snook warns. Boxes filled with missionary supplies and couches from Bullers' aircraft, which arrived and departed ahead of us, sit on the dirt waiting to be picked up. Missionary Ron Cyphers sits on the baggage loading ramp, blocking its suitcase-size opening into the terminal baggage area; he is preventing thieves from darting through the opening to steal the newly arrived supplies. Cyphers is the administrator of the Northern Haiti Children's Home where the supplies are badly needed. "MFI is our lifeline to the outside world," Cyphers tells me. He is eager to see his mail.

Wilbert Merzilus nearby tells me his Living Hope Mission Ministries finds MFI the "life" of his efforts to build churches. Teams of volunteer construction workers, some with training and some without, come to spend a week helping to build needed structures. Many of the organizations use the word hope in their names. Their goal is to make Haiti livable so that the citizens want to stay, rather than escape to Florida. But every Sunday the pastors notice more worshippers missing from the pews: They're on a leaky boat to an uncertain destiny.

Snook greets Haitian customs and airport officials while a policeman eyes AOPA Pilot photographer Mike Fizer warily as Fizer raises his camera to record the scene. In the meantime, the third MFI DC-3 has landed, and officials are leading its passengers to the terminal while cargo is unloaded. Gumpel is installing seats in N300MF where cargo had been tied down so we can take a load of 20 passengers back to Florida. A clerk sits in the small eight-foot-square shop recording sales by hand in a notebook but says little; he speaks only French Creole. Within 40 minutes we are ready to depart.

It's been a long day; Snook reveals he had gotten up at the same time I did today — 3:30 a.m., but he and Gumpel still have 600 nm to go. Once in the air and headed toward Provo for fuel, I meet passenger and general aviation pilot David Gilcher of Ohio, who spent the past week helping to roof a school and build a church. He seems frustrated.

"Our work was hindered by roadblocks and protests," he says. "While they blockaded the streets we stayed in the compound. They throw engine blocks on the road or burn tires. I wanted to get some trinkets but it wasn't possible," Gilcher says.

Across the aisle sits Eugene Enns, general director of Grace Mission, a group that sponsors Drop of Love schools in Haiti and also has programs in Mexico. He is proud that he is helping 4,800 kids in Haiti. The largest school is in Limbe, where 2,400 children receive an education, but there are schools in 13 other villages as well. He recalls having difficulty with roadblocks once, but he knew a local police official who happened to own a shotgun. He asked the policeman to ride with him on the next trip; the appearance of a shotgun in the truck seemed to ease his passage through the roadblock.

Americans don't always get a thank you for their efforts. One protester heckled a group of missionaries as being "American imperialists" until he found out they were from Canada. Then he said, "Welcome to my country."

Our speed on the 3.5-hour journey from Caicos Island to Florida is 141 kt. While I have enjoyed my DC-3 journey, I could enjoy a 160-kt speed much more right now. Later in the week, Snook is to pick up a turboprop DC-3. He raised $1.2 million in donations for it and will also trade in one of MFI's aircraft, a fourth DC-3 waiting for new engines back at Palm Beach International Airport. The new airplane is named Chief Tahiri after a headhunter in South America who mended his ways. It sits forlornly on the ramp a few hundred feet from broadcaster Rush Limbaugh's private Gulfstream IV and television producer Dick Clark's old Boeing 727 that nobody wants to buy. Snook is anxious to have the greater speed and load-carrying capability of the converted DC-3.

Suddenly from the left side of the cabin behind me I hear the booming voice of Haitian Joiny (pronounced Johnny) Etienne, 25. He is on his way to Florida for the first time and will become a freshman at Pensacola Christian College where he plans to join the premed program. "How long before we get to Florida?" he wants to know. Having settled into a stupor of exhaustion, I have no idea, but I wander up to the cockpit to get a readout from the GPS. It is tracking to an intersection a few miles ahead, not Palm Beach International far ahead in the dusk, so I am not able to provide any information to Etienne.

Etienne then leaps to the window nearly on top of the passengers seated there to see if he can spot the lights of Florida. It is 6 p.m. and a beautiful sunset is in progress. "Are you excited?" an amused passenger wants to know.

"I am excited!" Etienne shouts. Later the coast comes sparkling into view. The lights of cars on I-95 seem to silence him. Has he seen this many cars before — ones in good repair? Or does he fear it is a roadblock like those in Haiti? Enns suggests to fellow passengers that they sing The Star-Spangled Banner to welcome the enthusiastic Etienne to the United States. As they begin, the sunset has all but disappeared in front of the aircraft but still generates a deep red glow to the southwest.

Perhaps it is the rockets' red glare.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.