General aviation battles back

May 1, 2005

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines travels throughout the country in his A36 Bonanza.

To a person, every member of the general aviation community I spoke with recently in Florida about the area's recovery from last summer's hurricanes noted with gallows humor that most of the rebuilding will be done by about June 1 — the start of this year's hurricane season. Like many of you I had seen video of the images and received many e-mailed pictures of the devastation as four hurricanes ravaged the state over several weeks. But even six months after the storms, when I visited several GA companies impacted by the winds and storm surges, the level of damage was almost unimaginable.

Over the course of a few days in early March, I landed in Avon Park, in the middle of the state, Orlando, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, Stuart, and Daytona Beach. Most impressive were the blue tarps. From the air, some communities seem to be a sea of blue tarps strapped to damaged roofs in an effort to keep the weather out — even six months later. The four storms — Charley, Frances, Jeanne, and Ivan — crisscrossed the state between mid-August and late September. In all, some 25,000 homes were destroyed and 116,000 others damaged.

First there was Charley, which lived as a hurricane or tropical storm from August 9 through 14. It was forecast to hit Tampa on August 13, causing massive evacuations of people and airplanes. However, Charley didn't read the forecasts and instead made a sharp easterly turn and, with only two hours of notice from the hurricane trackers, plowed into the Port Charlotte area south of Tampa as a Category 4 hurricane, scrubbing the coastal town of Punta Gorda with winds of 145 mph and a sea surge of 20 feet. Twenty-two people died. Damages topped $6.8 billion.

AOPA Pilot and AOPA Online published photos of the airplanes at Charlotte County Airport trashed by the storm. Many people out of harm's way wondered why the airplanes weren't flown to safety. Punta Gorda was forecast to receive only some storm surge as the storm pelted Tampa, but Charley instead made a beeline for the busy GA airport. "I had 22 airplanes in my hangar," says Tim Coons, president of Mod Works, a renowned Mooney modification shop on the field. "I had invited people to bring their airplanes into our hangar because I thought they would be safe. The airport is on high ground and we were only expecting the storm surge." Instead every one of the airplanes, including four belonging to Coons, was severely damaged or destroyed. "I thought I had adequate insurance for something like this. I was wrong. I'm not sure you could ever have enough insurance for this."

As a result of the damage, Mod Works is gone — the modification center, aircraft sales, engineering shop, avionics, paint, upholstery. Its 46 employees have had to find work elsewhere. "I don't think we're going to be able to survive," Coons says remorsefully. He has found other shops to complete the work on all but four of the customer airplanes that were in the shop. He's still working to satisfy his commitments to customers while trying to earn a living. "My two houses, two cars, two boats are all trashed. It's kind of like a divorce," he says philosophically. "You work your way through it and then find it's an opportunity for a fresh start."

Going east

Across the state on the Atlantic side, the staff at The New Piper Aircraft was thinking that way too. Hurricane Frances made landfall near Fort Pierce, a few miles south of Piper's Vero Beach headquarters. For more than 30 hours starting on September 4, the storm ping-ponged around the state, causing 15 deaths and $2.5 billion in damages. "It seemed like it would never end. It really got to you hour after hour," remembers Chuck Suma, president of The New Piper. The storm heavily damaged Piper's production facilities.

Just as the company had restarted limited production, Hurricane Jeanne drew a target on Florida's Treasure Coast. Three weeks to the day after Frances wreaked havoc, shell-shocked Floridians braced for the new threat. Jeanne followed almost an identical track; the core hit within five miles of where Frances made landfall.

"It was like being kicked in the stomach," says Molly Martin Pearce, Piper's director of dealer relations and sales. "We had just started production again about a day and a half earlier when Jeanne moved in."

When the winds calmed, the staff could evaluate the damage. In the end about 300,000 square feet of the company's 1.1 million square feet of space had been destroyed or damaged. The roofs collapsed on the two primary assembly buildings — enormous steel structures. The winds peeled large overhangs off the ends of the buildings, popping steel beams out of concrete, and tumbled the overhangs half the length of the buildings before the centers of the roofs gave way. When I visited, the buildings stood much as they had been the day after the storm as Piper continued negotiations with its insurance companies.

The company has done a herculean job of restarting production in undamaged space. Much of the undamaged areas were parts of the original Piper complex built in the early 1960s. Most of the space hadn't been used for anything other than storage for 20 years. Employees cleared decades of unused equipment and debris and within weeks had built production lines. By March, they were turning out four airplanes a week with the plan to go to seven by early summer.

As a result of the damage, Piper built only 189 airplanes in 2004. Already the company is at a flow rate that will result in more deliveries than the 229 in 2003.

Suma and other executives at Piper can't say enough good about how helpful the employees were during the crisis. Despite having to deal with damage to their homes, employees showed up immediately after the storm to assist the company. Likewise, the GA community helped in innumerable ways. Tears still form in Martin Pearce's eyes as she tells what it was like to hear Suma describe the events to members of the Malibu Mirage Owners and Pilots Association convention last fall. The owners group presented Piper with a check for $25,000 to assist employees with everything from rent to buying generators. Vendors, dealers, and others soon followed suit. "In some cases it was money for the employee to buy a night in a hotel room where their family could get a shower and use the pool," says Suma. After weeks in sweltering Florida heat without power at home, a shower and air conditioning are treats.

James Schuster, chief executive officer of Raytheon Aircraft, called Suma immediately after the first storm. Suma remembers the call well. "He asked, 'What do you need?'" Twenty-four hours later two Beech 1900 airliners from Wichita showed up on the ramp loaded with generators, tarps, and other supplies.

"We fed the pilots and they left — just like that. It was like a dream," says Martin Pearce.

Flight training resumes

At the Fort Pierce location of Pan Am International Flight Academy, Marilyn Ladner, executive director of the academy's Career Pilot Division, tells a similar story. Employees worked around the clock to make sure the school's 256 students were safely out of harm's way. When Frances approached, the school dispatched its instructors to fly 32 of its airplanes to the Pensacola area. Nine airplanes were in the shop for maintenance and could not fly. The storm balled those airplanes up into a corner of the maintenance hangar when the door gave way. Frances soldiered across the state toward Pensacola, forcing the instructors to move the fleet farther west. Ultimately, they flew the trainers to Pan Am's Deer Valley, Arizona, location as threatening weather kept chasing them. The drill was repeated all over again three weeks later when Jeanne showed up.

As a result of the storms, the company decided at the end of March to close the Fort Pierce location. Pan Am President Wally David said the hurricanes, the uncertainty about future hurricanes, and the associated training delays from evacuations drove the decision. Particularly for its foreign airline customers, Pan Am needed to be able to turn out pilots at an agreed-upon schedule. The storm delays and other Florida weather issues made that impossible, said David. The Fort Pierce students will be transitioned to the Arizona location by the end of July. The company will forgive any usual withdrawal penalties for any students who elect not to transfer.

As hurricane season 2005 fires up on June 1, much of Florida's general aviation community will be up and running, but some of it will be gone forever.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Links to photographs and additional information about the hurricane damage may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml).

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.