New Orleans aircraft owners seek answers after flood

September 6, 2012

new orleans
The Cessna 172 dubbed “Bessie” and used for animal rescue, marine biology, and conservation missions by the nonprofit organization On Wings of Care, was thoroughly drenched as Lakefront Airport flooded. Photo courtesy Bonny Schumaker.

Even before the flood waters drained, they set to work trying to save a Cessna 172 used for a very special set of missions.

Officials in New Orleans had told aircraft and business owners that Hurricane Isaac should pose no threat of flooding at Lakefront Airport, but on Aug. 29, the waters rose through drains on the field, flooded hangars, and damaged about two dozen aircraft.

It was a scenario that has often been repeated. This time, Lakefront, with its restored Art Deco hangar, was not the only Louisiana airport under water: At St. John the Baptist Parish Airport in nearby Reserve, La., aircraft owners faced a similar situation, with the added challenge of removing thousands of dead earthworms that had sought high ground in vain, according to AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Jim Riviere.

“The smell is incredible and memorable,” Riviere reported to fellow members of the airport community in an email.

Bonny Schumaker, a physicist who retired from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and founded a nonprofit organization, On Wings of Care, that is dedicated to animal rescue, aerial support of wildlife biology, and conservation, said the Cessna 172 dubbed Bessie may yet survive, thanks to fast action. As the Cessna emerged from immersion in three feet of brackish water from Lake Pontchartrain, Schumaker and volunteer Brayton Matthews—who manages the Flightline First FBO at Lakefront Airport—set to work disassembling the stricken airplane in a frantic dash to beat the onset of corrosion.

“Fingers and fleet were flying,” said Schumaker, noting the Cessna was not insured for the full cost of replacing the highly modified aircraft, with its souped-up engine, long-distance fuel tanks, and a host of photography ports used to survey whale sharks and whales from the air. “Within about six hours of it being possible, we had everything off of her.”

Schumaker and Matthews slathered gallons of WD-40, Corrosion X, and similar products, a Friday night “spa bath” that may have worked: There are no signs of corrosion in the control cables, engine or other components, though it is unlikely that the wiring in the belly survived and the 406 MHz ELT was destroyed. Time will tell, but Shumaker hopes to buy the aircraft back from the insurance company and complete repairs.

The flood was unexpected, Schumaker said, though Bessie’s landing gear had been wrapped in plastic bags and sealed with tape, just in case. Schumaker considered relocation, but with assurances that the drains would keep the airport above water and few good options to choose from (hangar space on higher ground quickly grew scarce as the storm approached), Schumaker opted to hunker down.

“We took every precaution we could take,” Schumaker said.

Ankur Hukmani, who owns Flight Academy of New Orleans, said the school’s aircraft were moved north in advance of the storm, but computers, training records, and just about everything else in the office was lost.

“All our equipment was inundated,” Hukmani said. “We’ve got nothing left.”

Matthews said the airport was slowly returning to full operation. As of Sept. 4, the field was open to day-VFR traffic, and the fuel trucks had been saved by a move to higher ground.

“There’s always something good in everything,” Matthews said Sept. 4, with a small army of insurance adjusters still on the field. “What may be good in this is, this time, we’re going to find out why this airport keeps flooding.”

Part of the answer is that Lakefront Airport is perched on a spit of land outside of the levee line that protects New Orleans, surrounded by its own flood barrier. The water never topped that barrier, but instead surged through a drain that usually carries water from the airport through the levee line and into a canal inside the city. While city officials did not respond to a request for comment, it appears that the drain valve was closed on Aug. 29, leaving the airfield under three or four feet of water in many places.

After a similar soaking caused by Hurricane Georges in 1998, aircraft owners sued the city but lost the case, the court ruling that the need to protect homes and businesses inside the levee line trumped the need to protect aircraft and businesses on the field. This time, the business and aircraft owners want to know why the same decision was made despite much lower water levels that they feel did not pose a threat to the city.

Matthews, who watched the water pour in through the drains on Aug. 29, said the airport community is not seeking a “witch hunt,” but real answers, and more reliable predictions in the future.

“What we want to do is hire a hydrologist, a true expert to tell us what’s going on,” Matthews said.

Riviere, in an email message Sept. 4, said the hangars at St. John the Baptist Parish Airport stayed much drier, with only ankle-deep water. Many pilots there spent Labor Day weekend removing worms—both dead and alive—and attending to aircraft. The airport was forced to decline requests for official use, and remained closed until Sept. 3.

“We can't let this happen again,” Riviere wrote. “Now, if I can just get rid of that smell.”

Schumaker hopes to return to the air soon, and continue a mission of spotting and tracking whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico—along with long-distance animal rescues and other missions.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.