Charley's wrath

October 1, 2004

Mark R. Twombly, a writer, editor, and pilot, has a new respect for the forces of nature.

Wind is as much a part of flying as a wing. Wind is the foundation of weather, and the means by which it travels. It is the primary factor in determining runway configuration at airports. The wind decides which direction we take off and land. Even when it's no more than a light breeze, wind is a powerful, omnipotent force for pilots to try to manage. Sometimes wind is unmanageable to the extreme.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004: Hurricane Charley was churning up through west-central Cuba on a northerly course, but no one at the regular monthly meeting of the Page Field Association in Fort Myers seemed particularly concerned. Hurricane forecasting, a remarkably accurate science, had pegged Charley to spin into the eastern Gulf of Mexico, making landfall somewhere between Southwest Florida and the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

Since we were at the far southern edge of the forecast track, most people breathed a sigh of relief. After all, it had been 44 years since Donna, the last hurricane to directly affect this part of the state. It didn't look like Charley would be the next big one, although it would come close enough to kick up some impressive winds.

Still, it was discussed at our airport users meeting. Was anyone going to evacuate his or her airplane on the chance that Charley, at the time a mere Category 1 hurricane, might take a more northeasterly path toward us? Nope. After the meeting a couple of my pals asked if I'd like to join them for dinner. I phoned my wife for clearance, but got something quite different. "The City Council met tonight in a special session," she reported. "They are being told the hurricane will make landfall around here, and it will be a Category 4 storm."

I was stunned. The TV weather stars were sticking with a northerly track and a lesser storm. What did our politicians on Sanibel Island know? "They've ordered a mandatory evacuation of the island beginning at 7 a.m. tomorrow," she added.

Thursday, August 12: After a long and tiring day of preparing the house and packing essentials, we fled our island home for a motel just south of Page Field, where our airplane sat in its new storm-compliant T-hangar. Like me, none of my partners gave much consideration to moving the airplane. Al said it best: "It's the least of my concerns."

Friday, August 13: Throughout the morning the storm tracked toward Tampa. At noon it took a jog to the northeast — toward us — and bulked up to Category 4 strength. When the eye was about 10 miles from our home, it turned slightly northwest and began paralleling the barrier islands. With that turn we were spared. I popped the cork on a bottle of good Zinfandel I had brought to our refuge at the Comfort Inn, and five minutes later the power went out.

The storm subsided late in the afternoon, and my son and I ventured out to check on the airport and our airplane. One Cessna had flipped over, another had a severely bent wing, and a third had wedged its high wing under the low wing of a Piper Saratoga parked next to it. Incredibly, however, most of the airplanes tied down on the ramp appeared undamaged. I couldn't get onto the field because the power was out and the gates wouldn't budge, but the hangars looked intact.

Saturday, August 14: The extent of Charley's destructive path across Florida, and its devastating effects on many airports, emerged. At Page Field two airplanes were destroyed and eight to 10 others sustained damage. Our airplane? Unaffected, except that the hangar door couldn't be raised until power was restored at the airport several days later.

After the storm turned away from Sanibel Island, it sought the warm waters of Charlotte Harbor, moving up the bay to Punta Gorda. Charlotte County Airport sits just to the east of town, and the airport felt the full fury of the storm.

Ray Romeu and his partner, Robert Ulrich, hadn't considered moving their Dakota Hawk and Sonerai homebuilts off the field before the storm. " I wasn't counting on a hurricane," Romeu says. Even after Charley unexpectedly turned toward Punta Gorda, he felt sure the hangar would hold.

It didn't. The two airplanes were crushed. Virtually every airplane tied down on the ramp was severely damaged or destroyed. Twelve days after the storm much of Charlotte County Airport still lay in waste, closed to all but emergency flights.

Charley will be studied for years because of its erratic movement, its swift gain in intensity, and its sustained strength as it carved a path across the state, emerging into the Atlantic near Daytona Beach. Its powerful winds and associated tornadoes destroyed airplanes, hangars, businesses, and dreams at airports large and small: Page Field, Charlotte County, Arcadia Municipal, Wauchula Municipal, Kissimmee Gateway, Lake Wales Municipal, Orlando's Executive, and Orlando Sanford International, among others.

The engines, instruments, and radios from Romeu's airplanes are salvageable, but little else. The partners won't be collecting insurance because the airplanes weren't covered. Insurance for homebuilts is expensive relative to the value of the airplanes. "We're fine, and our house is fine. Airplanes can be replaced." Romeu says he and Ulrich will build and fly again.

For photos, see "Pilot Briefing: Florida Airports Take the Brunt of Hurricane Season," on page 68 and 69.