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Operation Airdrop ups hurricane reliefOperation Airdrop ups hurricane relief

Volunteer aviators make hundreds of compassion flights after Hurricane FlorenceVolunteer aviators make hundreds of compassion flights after Hurricane Florence

Editor's note: This article was updated Sept. 28 with additional information.

Volunteer aviators with the Texas-based Operation Airdrop nonprofit delivered 280,692 pounds of supplies during 475 general aviation flights after Hurricane Florence swept through the Carolinas.

Operation Airdrop volunteers coordinated hundreds of general aviation compassion flights from Raleigh Durham International Airport during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. A Cessna 210 flown by local pilot Sean Malone is shown on the RDU ramp. Photo courtesy of Allison Hoyt/Operation Airdrop.

“Everything started blowing up and got bigger and bigger” as the relief effort for the Category 1 storm unfolded, said Doug Jackson, co-founder of the grassroots charity.

The organization burst onto the scene in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, which pummeled Houston with torrential rains before flooding severed smaller communities from federal disaster relief efforts by road.

The Carolinas relief-effort tally exceeded the Texas coast’s estimated 250,000 pounds of goods. Aircraft of various sizes participated in the massive relief effort that Jackson referred to as a freight train of help.

Operation Airdrop volunteers coordinated hundreds of general aviation compassion flights from the TAC Air FBO at Raleigh Durham International Airport in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Photo courtesy of Operation Airdrop.

Pilots flying single-engine Beechcraft, Cessna, Cirrus, and Piper aircraft dotted the TAC Air fixed-base operator's ramp at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Jackson said that the Joe Gibbs Racing team CRJ-700 staff took a break from shuttling top NASCAR drivers to devote resources to flying relief missions. Pilatus PC–12 and Socata TBM 700 turboprops also hauled heavy loads.

Civilian volunteer Zack Medford from the Carolina Cavalry outreach organization said working with the racing team hauling supplies was an “amazing” experience. “Thank you so much, Operation Airdrop, for coming to our aid,” he said on a social media video. “I can’t tell you how much it means seeing all these different private pilots come together and put their time, their resources, and their planes to work to help the people of North Carolina and to the people who live along the coast.”

The Operation Airdrop team of Brian Kelly, Brian Rambo, Allison Hoyt, Trey Thriffiley, and Ethan Garrity coordinated hundreds of general aviation compassion flights from Raleigh Durham International Airport during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Photo courtesy of Shannon Kelly/Operation Airdrop.

Volunteers Curtis and Raquel Boyd learned about Operation Airdrop from social media—the organization’s communication backbone. “What little you can do, it just matters,” said Raquel Boyd, a ground-based volunteer who worked for three days dispatching aircraft, answering telephones, and filling in where needed. “It’s a blessing to see the number of people who came out to support Carolinians,” said her husband, Curtis.

Operation Airdrop western operations specialist and air traffic controller Brian Kelly posted a video to social media that thanked countless volunteer pilots and ground crew members who “followed with their heart, their labor, and their skill. It was just absolutely amazing what we were able to get done,” said Kelly.

Jackson said planning for the massive relief operation began days before the storm swept ashore, and he complimented the TAC Air FBO for literally “opening their doors to us before they even moved into their new building” on the airfield. Communication crews were summoned to install telephone lines, the sparkling new floor was striped with red tape to mark delivery loads, and posters were taped to walls to indicate loads, traffic flow, and other logistics. “We expected 10 people to help out, but instead we got 150,” Jackson noted.

“I think the key to our success was the huge pool of talent that we had,” added Jackson. “I don’t know if we’d ever tapped it before. When I started this thing [in 2017] I was thinking we’d get 10 or 15 guys and just have some fun and help people. Every time we went forward, we learned a little. That’s the magical part of this organization. There are such astoundingly talented people working the back end supporting everybody. We really couldn’t do it without them.”

Formula for success

Co-founded in 2017 by Jackson and John Clay Wolfe following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, Operation Airdrop gained popularity via social media and rallied pilots, aviation businesses, and outreach organizations. Shortly afterward, hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Jackson said a crew of more than 200 volunteer pilots and aircraft “performed 500 missions and delivered 500,000 pounds of supplies” through mid-2018. He also participated in a 2018 Air Care Alliance Summit for outreach organizations that was held at the AOPA You Can Fly Learning Center.

  • Arrival procedures: “Air traffic controllers at Raleigh Durham International Airport were wonderful. They only asked for us to put together an ad-hoc arrival procedure and they immediately approved it.”
  • Speak their language: Key members of the team were also trained ATC personnel. Dallas controller Brian Kelly, Miami Center’s Tom Flanary, and others coordinated clearances and worked with the Raleigh tower controllers to usher flights in and out of the busy airfield.
  • Smoother operator: “We tripled the average daily operations at RDU and that’s saying a lot for an airport the size of Raleigh.”
  • Flying club: “Dan Benedix, a local pilot and a flying club member, just popped up and said, ‘I want to help you guys here.’ Before you knew it, Dan had about 150 pilots in his club pitching in after Florence. He became the rock. He was amazing.
  • Respond quickly: Despite the unfolding chaos requests for supplies or support were frequently filled in less than three hours.
  • When asked for his final thoughts on the relief effort, Jackson said, “The pilots were awesome.”

    • Operation Airdrop volunteers load up a Cessna 210 flown by local pilot Sean Malone at the Raleigh Durham International Airport during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Photo courtesy of Allison Hoyt/Operation Airdrop.
    • Operation Airdrop volunteers coordinate logistics for 475 flights and more than 280,000 pounds of supplies from the TAC Air FBO at Raleigh Durham International Airport. Photo courtesy of Allison Hoyt/Operation Airdrop.
    • Operation Airdrop volunteers load a business jet near the TAC Air ramp at Raleigh Durham International Airport. A Photo courtesy of Allison Hoyt/Operation Airdrop.
    • School children visit with Operation Airdrop volunteers and others based from the TAC Air FBO at Raleigh Durham International Airport. Photo courtesy of Allison Hoyt/Operation Airdrop.
    • Tennessee Wing Civil Air Patrol members install a WaldoAir camera pod on the strut of a CAP Cessna 182. Photo courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol.
    • Civil Air Patrol photo missions documented infrastructure damage. Photos courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol.
    • These aerial images show flood-damaged Sanford Dam on Boiling Spring Lake in North Carolina. They were taken by a Surrogate RPA aircrew tasked with flying over critical infrastructure in areas affected by Hurricane Florence. Photo courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol.
    • Virginia Wing Civil Air Patrol cadets work with the North Carolina National Guard to unload pallets of bottled water at the distribution center in south Wilmington, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the Civil Air Patrol.
    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, Pilots

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