Rally GA: Flight for Survival

Help in the wake of the hurricane

November 1, 2011

A distant whir quickly grows to a roar as a red and blue Piper Aztec buzzes the Cat Island coastline after takeoff, its two 250-horsepower Lycoming IO-540 engines at full power. All conversation stops; necks crane skyward to follow the Aztec's path. It's a signal that the pilot just dropped off food, water, and construction tools at the Arthur's Town Airfield.

The aircraft is one of 20, ranging from a Cessna 182 to a Beechcraft King Air 350, involved in the Bahamas Habitat Hurricane Irene disaster relief effort. Pilots from as far away as California have donated their time and aircraft to deliver supplies from Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to the Bahamas. These flights through Bahamas Habitat were some of the first to reach the islands, including remote areas on Cat, Eleuthera, and Acklins, delivering 25,225 pounds of relief supplies. The Bahamians survived Category 3 Hurricane Irene in August without any fatalities and general aviation reconnaissance and relief flights started the next day.

“That can really matter. That can really make a difference,” Cameron King, Bahamas Habitat aviation and disaster relief coordinator, said of the importance of using GA for ministry and relief efforts in the Bahamas (see “Pilots: Cameron King”).

GA Rally Bahamas Many roofs were damaged or completely blown off by Hurricane Irene.

Some houses on the islands were completely washed away, some were gutted, while others escaped unscathed as if the storm handpicked those to spare. Diana Demeritte wasn’t so fortunate. Her tiny home overlooking the Caribbean’s turquoise waters from a 10- to 20-foot rocky ledge at Cupid’s Cay was filled with waist-deep water. “You don’t know if it’s just going to come and make one wash,” sweeping everything away, Demeritte said of the surge. “We need help, we really need help.” After the hurricane, Demeritte is trying to pick up the pieces, but more than her material loss weighs on her heart. Her husband of seven years died in March, she explained, holding up a black-and-white picture of him photocopied onto a booklet that she somehow kept mostly dry.

“It’s nice to live here when there’s no storm,” Demeritte said matter of factly as she walked across her rocky backyard to overlook the water. “When you have a storm, it’s hard. You lose everything and have to start again.”

And they are starting again. “It’s going to take a whole lot more than Irene to knock us down,” said Deatra Symonette, Odyssey Aviation station manager at Great Exuma Island. Bahamians have lived through many hurricanes; Irene won’t be the last.

GA Rally Bahamas Diana Demeritte takes time to pamper herself by coloring her hair after what has been a difficult year: losing her husband, job, and now her belongings. .

It’s people like Demeritte, or the single woman whose refrigerator was pushed out of her house and across the street by the storm surge, or the many who are sleeping on floors, that the volunteers have in mind when they get up in the wee hours. Normal arrival time: 6:45 a.m. Any aircraft that aren’t already loaded with supplies from the night before get stuffed to the brim.

‘Don’t let go’

“Woo, it’s a pretty day. Here we go,” exclaimed volunteer Addison Shock, program director for Servants in Faith and Technology, a Christian organization that teams with Bahamas Habitat. He has no aviation experience but has learned the finer points of weight and balance. He knows he can load 1,000 pounds into a Beech Baron and it’s about the equivalent of a full Silverado truck bed. A box of Vienna sausages weighs five pounds; packs of Jif peanut butter weigh 20 pounds. He used the weight listed on the containers or a rusty set of scales in the T-hangar where supplies are stored. Next came the challenge of bending his 6-foot, 4-inch frame into the aircraft to load it. “I’m playing Tetris,” he said, refusing one item and requesting Vienna sausages to fit an exact hole.

GA Rally Bahamas With no electricity or running water, items were left outside in the heat to dry.

While Shock loaded David Robertson’s Baron, Robertson was inside Banyan Air Services planning his missions for the day with King. They would fly a Baron and Aztec to Great Exuma Island to clear Bahamian customs and then deliver supplies to Arthur’s Town Airfield on Cat Island and Governor’s Harbour on Eleuthera Island.

With flight plans and Customs and Border Protection’s Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) manifests filed, the group departed. In cruise, King adjusted the Aztec’s rpm and manifold pressure to reach 160 knots, or what Bahamas Habitat Chief Pilot Steve Merritt calls VBH, “Be happy speed.” King briefed her passengers on the day’s mission while naming each island the group passes. The turquoise Caribbean waters had returned to their brilliant hue that fair-weather cumulus clouds reflect. “It looks like cotton candy suspended in air,” King said of the blue-green clouds.

GA Rally Bahamas Bahamians clean up debris after the hurricane.

After a bumpy final approach from the winds and heating of the day, King touched down lightly at Great Exuma. “Welcome to the Bahamas,” King said. She couldn’t wait to shut down. This was her first trip to the island since the hurricane and she was looking for a friend.

“Don’t let go. I thought you were going to blow away,” King told Symonette as they embraced. Symonette was one of the many King checked on that day.

Volunteer pilots have developed attachments to the Bahamians. King said it’s face-to-face time with the residents that keeps volunteer pilots returning. When disaster strikes the Caribbean, it’s no longer about a foreign chain of islands off the Florida coast. It’s about the woman, man, or child the pilot met at the airport.

Mission ready

GA Rally Bahamas Category 3 winds ripped apart a Piper PA–23-250 .

Pilots volunteer their time and aircraft, and pay for their own lodging and fuel. However, they can submit claims of tax-deductible expenses to Bahamas Habitat, and the organization will document them and provide receipts, according to John Armstrong, president of Bahamas Habitat. Avgas runs more than $7 a gallon on the islands.

A typical day of missions takes at least five hours of flying, although their work typically spans 12 hours. Many volunteer pilots aren’t from the area, including two pilots flying an Aztec and Baron from Cullman, Alabama; a Twin Comanche pilot from North Carolina; and a Mooney aviator from California. The pilots are on the ground in the islands only long enough to unload supplies in 90-degree heat and high humidity. In many cases they hand the supplies to the local Bahamas Habitat contacts who will deliver them.

GA Rally Bahamas Bahamas Habitat volunteers on Cat Island gathered relief supplies from pilots to give to those in need.

“They don’t need me out there,” said Scott Brallier with Wings for the Word, who flew missions in a Twin Comanche. “They need what I can bring.”

Banyan Air Services at Fort Lauderdale Executive provided a staging ground for Bahamas Habitat. Bahamas Elite flew reconnaissance missions before Hurricane Irene, and pilots from Angel Flight Southeast, PilotMall.com, Air Journey, and Premier Aircraft Sales participated in relief flights.

Pilots saw the difference they were making—from the air. “You can tell which way the hurricane winds were blowing,” Robertson said. The blue tarps they delivered dot houses that sustained roof damage. Catherine Ahles, vice president for marketing and business development of Premier Aircraft Sales, helped shop for the survival supplies that were delivered. Even though she stayed stateside, she has no question about the impact Bahamas Habitat is making.

“That’s [a] niche Bahamas Habitat has filled,” Ahles said. “Those people wouldn’t get help otherwise. Bottom line.”

Email the author at alyssa.miller@aopa.org.

GA Rally Bahamas
Supplies from Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport are delivered to the Bahamian vicitms of Hurricane Irene