For nearly two weeks, general aviation pilots transported patients with urgent medical appointments and others who could not afford to wait for U.S. 101 to be cleared following the devastating mudslides Jan. 9 in Santa Barbara County, north of Los Angeles. The pilots who joined this grassroots relief effort organized on social media are ready to do more.
The mudslides that struck Montecito, California, in the early morning hours swept homes from foundations and buried U.S. 101, cutting the coastal highway that residents rely on to travel north and south from communities flanked by hills and ocean. At least 21 people died, and dozens more required rescue. Helicopters flown by Santa Barbara County crews and the U.S. Coast Guard plucked survivors from the devastated area, actor Jeff Bridges and his family among them.
“I knew there was going to be a problem, so I repositioned my airplane from Santa Barbara down the coast to Ventura,” Moorhouse recalled in a telephone interview.
As rescue crews continued to search for victims of a disaster that destroyed 65 homes and damaged hundreds more, Moorhouse posted a photo of his Beechcraft Bonanza on Facebook with an offer to help transport people with urgent needs. That post was shared thousands of times, and requests soon followed.
“I was inundated,” Moorhouse recalled. Among the many who responded were the creators of two grassroots relief efforts: Warrior Angels Rescue, originally created to facilitate aviation assistance for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and Thomas Fire Help, an online clearinghouse where those affected by the wildfire that created the conditions for the mudslides could seek assistance or offer help to neighbors.
“Those two organizations kind of took over my logistics, and also helped with finding more pilots,” Moorhouse said. “Within a day or two we had nearly 50 pilots volunteering.
Moorhouse and his fellow volunteers provided free and much-needed air transportation for medical patients in urgent need of cancer care or kidney dialysis, appointments they could not afford to postpone, or reach by road with the critical coastal freeway cut.
“We flew mostly medical professionals and patients who had urgent, nonnegotiable medical appointments,” said Emily Barany, who created the online group Thomas Fire Help with her partner in a local business that provides nonprofit organizations with fundraising and business services. Requests rolled in, and the small group worked to prioritize and match the most urgent needs with available volunteer pilots and their aircraft. Others volunteered ground transportation to general aviation airports south of the affected area, particularly Camarillo and Oxnard, and “we would fly them to Santa Barbara,” Moorhouse said, noting that hospitals in many cases covered the cost of the taxi ride from the airport to the appointment.
“At one point we were doing literally dozens of flights a day,” Moorhouse said.
One particular patient didn’t even need the taxi. Barany flew along with Samantha McVee and her daughter, Eliana Georges, 8, who has been battling cancer most of her life. Helicopter pilot John Ross was able to secure permission to land his passengers on the helipad on the roof of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Barany said the volunteers flew people to medical appointments as far north as Palo Alto, and as far south as San Diego. One passenger was a heart surgeon who had suddenly faced a five-hour drive to the hospital, though most were patients. Moorhouse flew two legs shuttling blood between facilities in Ventura and San Luis Obispo.
“We literally saved lives,” Barany said.
At first, the grassroots groups were able to manage the volume, but that changed as the word of available airplanes and pilots spread through social media.
“And then word got out and it exploded to a level that was far beyond our wildest dreams, and our scheduling capacity,” Barany said. “That was when we partnered with Angel Flight West.”
Moorhouse noted that organization, based in Santa Monica, already had systems and procedures in place that could help, including a supply of pilots with established qualifications, such as the minimum flight time required by most established GA relief groups. Moorhouse said Angel Flight West provided logistics expertise and scheduling resources that rounded out the capabilities of this newly created collective. “They did a phenomenal job.”
The GA community continued to rally as the days stretched to weeks with the highway still blocked by mud and debris.
“Signature Flight Support in Santa Barbara waived fees for everybody that was landing there, and they immediately began giving all pilots involved in the flights discounted fuel,” Moorhouse said. “They were busy.”
Other airports in the region also waived fees to help limit the expenses of the many volunteer pilots who covered all costs for the flights. Local media began to take notice of the impromptu GA airlift, and stories appeared in print and on local television news. Moorhouse wasted no opportunity.
“Every time I was interviewed, I stressed the importance of general aviation to communities, not only in California but across the country,” Moorhouse said. “We’re the ones that can get into small places and transport people and really make a difference.”
Barany said the generosity of the flying community left her “speechless, and it’s hard for me to be speechless.”
“I have to tell you, you people are incredible. I am so overwhelmed with the generosity in the aviation community,” Barany said. She also found working with pilots to be a lot of fun, and appreciated that aviators share her passion for process and a systematic approach to solving problems. “I also have a theory that you all just sit around waiting for an excuse to fly.”
Barany said more than 80 flight requests had been entered in the system, though there were some cancellations or duplicates, so a firm count of the volunteer flights flown was not yet clear. She guessed at least 50 flights had been completed by the time U.S. 101 reopened on Jan. 21.
Moorhouse said he continues to work with Barany and the other individuals and organizations involved. There is work to be done to get ready for the next disaster, and with so many scorched acres still threatening to turn to mud in future storms, Moorhouse and his fellow volunteers expect more airlifts will be needed.
“It’s going to happen again,” Moorhouse said. “This is not over, it’s the beginning. Now we’ve got a group that’s getting together, and we’re going to get it organized, and with that, continue to promote general aviation.”