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'The right thing to do''The right thing to do'

Flying 1,100 miles in two days delivers much more than supplies during Hurricane Irma recoveryFlying 1,100 miles in two days delivers much more than supplies during Hurricane Irma recovery

Like other aviators, I wanted to do something—anything—to help as Hurricane Irma bore down on the United States as a monster Category Five storm. My opportunity to assist came together when AOPA organized a relief campaign to help Florida residents get back on their feet two days after the aviation-rich state was swept by wind speeds of 130 mph and a Category Four hurricane.

  • Meadowbrook Church's Jamil Bess loads food staples into general aviation aircraft at an Ocala International Airport supply area for transport to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport and points further south Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA joined general aviation relief operations for Hurricane Irma victims by positioning critical supplies via aircraft and truck Sept. 12 to points in south Florida where the goods will be redistributed to those with the greatest need. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Members of Meadowbrook Church in Ocala, Florida, help load food staple items, medicine, and other supplies into general aviation aircraft at Ocala International Airport to help Hurricane Irma victims Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Tom Haines, AOPA senior vice president of media, communications, and outreach, and an avid general aviation pilot, loads sandwich bread into his Beechcraft Bonanza at Ocala International airport to assist Florida's Hurricane Irma victims Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Members of Meadowbrook Church in Ocala, Florida, help load food staple items, medicine, and other supplies into a Beechcraft Bonanza at Ocala International Airport to assist Hurricane Irma victims Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA Senior Vice President of Media, Communications, and Outreach, and avid general aviation pilot Tom Haines, with AOPA Executive Producer Warren Morningstar, embark on a Hurricane Irma relief mission from Lakeland Linder Regional Airport Sept. 13. AERObridge, a volunteer GA relief organization, coordinated the shipments. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A Baker Air Service Cessna Caravan is prepared for its mission to assist Hurricane Irma victims from a rally point at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport on the Sun 'N Fun ramp Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The outer edges of what was left of Hurricane Irma sweep into North Carolina's Outer Banks, far from initial U.S. landfall in the Florida Keys, Sept. 12. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Members of Florida's Bayside Community Church help transport food, drinking water, and medical supplies for Hurricane Irma victims at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport's Sun 'N Fun rally point Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Robert 'Bob' Houlihan of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, coordinates transportation of his college's van loaded with medicine and staples during relief efforts at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport bound for Hurricane Irma victims Sept. 13. AERObridge, a general aviation volunteer clearing house, helped organize shipments. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Students from Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, help transport food, drinking water, and medical supplies for Hurricane Irma victims at Lakeland Linder Airport's Sun 'N Fun ramp Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Members of the Lakeland Aero Club pepare for Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of Mike Zidziunas, Lakeland Aero Club.
  • General aviation pilots drop off hurricane relief supplies and pick up evacuees from fixed-base operator Bohlke in Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo by Janet Davidson.

I’ve covered many hurricanes as a newspaper and wire service photojournalist. Hurricane Elena chased me around Florida’s western elbow. After Hurricanes Fran, Bonnie, and Floyd, I hopped in Cessna 172s to get aerial photos above North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I rode out Hurricane Hugo in a friend’s second-floor Charleston, South Carolina, apartment as winds flung metal shrapnel through the air like darts. I remember miles and miles of trees cracked in half like toothpicks after Hurricane Hugo deposited ships in residents’ yards as far north as Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

But this was my first coverage assignment as an aviator. I came prepared for Hurricane Irma’s aftermath because I knew that gasoline would be scarce, power nonexistent, and food absent. My backpack had enough food to feed a family of five; I had solar chargers for everything; ForeFlight was locked and loaded. I packed a tent, sleeping bag, cook set, lots of camera gear, and a few pieces of clothing. Basically, I was well-prepared for wilderness—but the pack was so heavy it was nearly impossible to wrangle it into an aircraft.

My duties were to help reposition a Cessna 182 from AOPA’s Frederick, Maryland, headquarters to Florida’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport where we could join an aerial supply caravan coordinated by AERObridge, the all-volunteer, nonprofit general aviation organization that acts as a clearing house after natural disasters at home and abroad. Four GA aircraft, two moving vans, and about 16 people were involved in the operation, which is scheduled to continue for days.

General aviation pilot Carlo Cilliers, who is also an AOPA mechanic, repositions a Cessna 182 from Maryland to central Florida to help in Hurricane Irma relief efforts coordinated by AERObridge Sept. 12. Photo by David Tulis.

Carlo Cilliers, an ace mechanic who is thoroughly familiar with the care and feeding of a Skylane, was pilot in command. I handled the radio frequencies and flight plan and spelled him for relief every now and then.

We had a tall order: Fly about 900 miles as quickly and as safely as possible to join fellow AOPA pilots Luz Beattie and Janet Davidson, AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden, and AOPA Senior Vice President of Media, Communications, and Outreach Tom Haines at Lakeland—before deploying to the front lines in Homestead, and ultimately, the Florida Keys.

Our first day began shortly after sunrise with a pilot meeting to explain duties and compassion flight procedures, and to review temporary flight restrictions. Carlo and I took off after low clouds lifted at 11 a.m. and dodged Hurricane Irma’s lingering wrath that had fanned out over the Eastern Seaboard.

Facing 20-knot headwinds, we ended the day about 450 miles later as the sun painted Wilmington, North Carolina, orange. After a few hours of shuteye, we were back at it early the next morning with a route that would allow us to check out coastal damage along the way.

A panel-mounted navigation unit displays a line of aircraft returning to Daytona Beach's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after Hurricane Irma Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.

I’d heard from Georgia friends that St. Simons Island residences had flooded; and I wanted to survey downtown Jacksonville, Florida, where the St. John’s River lapped at Riverwalk shops and restaurants. VFR flight following from air traffic controllers helped us steer clear of active military operating areas; ATC staff could not have been more helpful. Controllers were especially pleasant during a photo flight around Jacksonville—and again in central Florida—as a long conga line of returning Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University pilots made a beeline east for their home base.

We arrived at Lakeland airport hot, tired, and thirsty at 1 p.m. after flying into a headwind for 450 miles, but our hearts lifted when we saw our friends taxiing out in aircraft loaded down with medicine, food, and bottled water.

AERObridge’s Michael Burwell had just arrived from Minnesota and quickly took the reins. Sun ‘n Fun’s Jeannie Schneider and her husband Scott marshalled aircraft, greeted volunteers, and tried to keep things as organized as possible in a chaotic environment. During the afternoon missions, the ramp was a flurry of activity as a half dozen college students from Southeastern University packed and unpacked critical supplies from airplanes, cargo vans, and 12-foot trailers.

Members of Task Force 75, veterans of the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, load up chain saws, water, and staple items inside a Sun 'N Fun International Expo hangar at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport for delivery to Hurricane Irma victims Sept. 13. Photo by David Tulis.

Inside one of the three large Sun ‘n Fun show hangars, retired personnel from the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment loaded an armada of pickup trucks with chain saws, bottled water, food, and baby supplies next to a restored Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 fighter jet. Schneider said 200 U.S. Air Force Reserve troops were due to arrive in Lockheed C-130s and were prepared to spend the night in the hangar, which normally houses vendors during the annual airshow.

After refilling the Cessna 182’s tanks and emptying the aircraft’s contents, and buoyed by receiving our first mission, Carlo and I lifted off at 4 p.m. behind Haines and McSpadden, bound for Ocala International Airport, 100 miles away. The assignment was to load the aircraft with medicine, beans and rice, baby supplies, and other necessities and bring them back to Lakeland before sunset. Meadowbrook Church’s Jamil Bess quickly tossed boxes of food to fellow volunteers who then carried them to the awaiting aircraft outside Ocala fixed-base operator Sheltair. “We’re doing this out of love and compassion for everybody,” said Bess, 16.

The loaded-down late-model Cessna 182 began to look more like a taildragger on the ramp, but its big Lycoming engine easily handled the takeoff, and we set a course due south for Lakeland, again.

By this time, the sun was low on the horizon and so was our energy level, but we were ecstatic to assist the enormous relief mission that is bound to take weeks, or longer. The feeling of accomplishment can’t be measured by words, deeds, or money. AOPA Senior Safety Advisor Bruce Landsberg summed it up best: When asked why he volunteered his Bonanza, his time, and his resources to help people he didn’t even know, Landsberg replied, “Because it was the right thing to do.”

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying

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