Haiti relief flights warrant thorough planning

March 5, 2010

Runways may be damaged. Airports may be over capacity and turning away flights. The landscape may be unknown, or current charts hard to come by. Flying into a disaster zone requires more preflight planning than usual.

In the weeks since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, general aviation pilots have landed on remote airports, grass strips, and country roads to get aid to areas of the nation cut off from the major supply chain in Port-au-Prince. GA is ideally suited to many components of disaster relief, but pilots wishing to get involved should be especially diligent in familiarizing themselves with all available information before a flight. Organizations with local knowledge and experience in disaster relief provide a valuable resource to pilots; preflight briefings and current charts should be automatic for any trip.

Rol Murrow, chairman of the umbrella humanitarian flying organization Air Care Alliance, said small aircraft have been instrumental in shuttling supplies from the Dominican Republic and to outlying areas, but he cautioned that improper planning could put pilot and passengers at risk. In the uncertainty after a natural disaster, runways may not be clear or an airport may be turning small airplanes away to make room for larger aircraft carrying supplies. If a pilot doesn’t find that out in advance, he could end up having to divert while low on fuel.

Fortunately, relief organizations with a presence in Haiti can provide valuable information for relief flights. Murrow advised people to research their trip carefully and “if possible, to hook up with an aviation-oriented group that is already involved in relief work.” Those groups have existing relationships with other relief organizations and have experience in the area, he said.

While the urge to hop in airplane to help out can be strong, some pilots have found they are best equipped to serve in another capacity. Stanley Posthumus, a pilot who considered flying to Haiti from New Jersey in his Cessna 172, chose to buy a ticket instead—his charts were dated 1988.

The decision proved to be wise. While he was helping out in Haiti, another pilot flew his Cessna 172 into a radio antenna near Cap Haitien in the north of the country, damaging the right strut just above the wheel and the tail, Posthumus said. The pilot, from the Dominican Republic, did not have a chart and said he did not see the antenna through the haze, Posthumus added. While the pilot and two passengers survived,  the incident validated his decision not to fly with outdated charts.

“I am pleased I did not take the risk of flying into Haiti without sufficient information as I may not have been so lucky,” Posthumus said.

AOPA has put together a resource page for pilots who want to connect with organizations and get involved in Haiti relief. The Air Care Alliance also offers advice for disaster relief and provides information about public benefit flying organizations.

“The main thing is that you research before jumping in to find out what’s happening and hook up with a group that knows what’s happening,” Murrow  counseled. “… Use all of your piloting skills, all your preflight planning to know as much as possible.”