General aviation pilots are continuing to help in Puerto Rico nearly a month after Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. territory.
For the past several weeks, Angel Flight Southeast’s Steve Purello and other volunteer pilots have flown supplies to the area under the "Angels to the Island" program and returned to the U.S. mainland with critically ill passengers seeking medical treatment.
The organization identified several outlying GA airfields that would be ideal distribution points for hard-hit areas of Puerto Rico that were inaccessible by land due to washed-out bridges, damaged roads, and limited automobile fuel availability. The mission to help those in need “was kind of perfect for us except it was a thousand miles away,” he added.
To solve the logistics issues, Purello mapped out a route between San Juan’s Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport (also known as Isla Grande) on the north coast, and Ponce’s Mercedita Airport on the south coast, a distance of 40 nautical miles that might as well be hundreds of miles apart by road. In between the two GA airfields are mountains that include the 3,539-foot-tall Cerro Dona Juana, valleys choked with debris from flooded streams, and washed-out roads that could take months to repair.
Angels to the Island flights also include missions to Rafael Hernandez Airport in the territory's northwest corner, completing an aviation triangle of relief for islanders that “is perfect for general aviation,” he explained. “It’s extremely hard to get there” any other way.
The organization has coordinated missions for scores of pilots who lined up to donate their time and resources amid the continuing humanitarian crisis. Purello personally delivered five generators, 100 water filters, medicine, and food on a recent flight before evacuating others from the island. “The mayor of San Lorenzo came to the plane to meet us,” he wrote via email at 1:35 a.m. after a long but fruitful day.
He said a Cirrus pilot brought nearly 400 pounds of supplies to Rafael Hernandez Airport “but they [the airport] ran out of aviation fuel for a while, so instead of flying to Ponce, they loaded up a car and drove the medical supplies” to where they were needed.
Angel Flight Southeast’s Nanci Schwartz said pilots were on standby to make short trips across the region based on requests from authorities; they also transported passengers “with serious conditions” to the U.S. mainland.
During a recent medical evacuation, pilot Brian Lucas landed his Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop near a Puerto Rico Army National Guard helicopter hangar that was severely damaged by the storm. Large pieces of the roof were ripped away by powerful winds that exposed four helicopters and pallets of supplies to the elements. The outside wall of a Signature fixed-base operation was crushed and yielded a view of wires stashed inside.
Lucas ferried to Florida three cancer patients for medical treatments. Aboard the aircraft, leukemia patient Antonio Bautista Colon shared his gratitude for the GA community. “In Puerto Rico, you can’t get to the hospitals because they were all flattened and hardly have any medicine,” he told Lucas. Colon said he waited for three days before he received a dosage of his blood disorder medicine and he was fearful for his life. “I came from the hospital and I hardly made it,” he told Lucas on a video the pilot documented. “I’m very glad that people like Angel Flight cared for us.”