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'This was their only lifeline'

Hawaii pilots organize airlift to fire-ravaged Lahaina

Firefighters still worked to douse the vestiges of the firestorm that devastated the Hawaiian port town of Lahaina, leaving dozens of people dead or missing from the close-knit community on the west side of Maui, as general aviation pilots organized an airlift that provided some of the first relief to survivors in desperate need of food, water, and medicine.

Pilots and other volunteers organized an emergency general aviation airlift that brought some of the first supplies of food, water, and medicine to Lahaina, the fire-ravaged community on Maui, Hawaii, at the epicenter of one of the deadliest wildfire disasters in U.S. history. Photos courtesy of Laurence Balter.

Six days after an August 8 wildfire consumed Lahaina, after firefighters made a desperate stand against a raging inferno to save lives as the local water system failed, Laurence Balter, a CFI, flight school owner, and longtime local resident, described the speed with which pilots from elsewhere on the island and beyond rallied to organize a supply line to the community served by a single road running along the perimeter of the island. The initial effort by Balter and Maui Brewing founder Garrett Marrero was organized and grew via text messages and social media. Flights began on August 11, when road access to Lahaina remained intermittent at best.

With communication networks compromised, the scale of the disaster took days to become manifest to those outside of the town largely flattened by fire. Balter said the GA relief operation was conceived while winds that had driven the fires with hurricane force faster than people could flee still lashed the island. The pilots had to wait, and they also had to enlist the support of the management of Kapalua Airport, a private airfield on the west side of the island long off-limits to GA—the only airport in Hawaii that is not grant-obligated, Balter noted. A single 3,000-foot paved runway offered access to the disaster area—if they could get permission.

"We called the airport manager's office and we received approval within 24 hours to operate relief flights into there," Balter said.

The growing group of volunteer pilots also coordinated with local firefighters, who helped offload supplies to vehicles for distribution to the devastated community a few miles down the road. "We were really the first responders bringing … everything. You name it. Sleeping bags to food, water."

Balter said pilots from other islands soon joined the effort, which swelled into a significant logistics operation. Supplies were collected at a Maui Brewing warehouse, trucked to Kahului Airport, loaded with help from volunteers and flown to Kapalua, about 12 minutes in the Cirrus SR22. Local firefighters and other volunteers unloaded aircraft quickly to make room for the next aircraft. "Within 5, 10 minutes we were back out again," Balter said.

Balter said everyone was too busy flying to count the first day's haul, but on August 12, the operation's second day, the group made 57 airlifts, delivering thousands of pounds of critical supplies, including food, pet food, and insulin.

"We're talking essentially 18-wheeler loads full of supplies during that time," Balter said.

With cellular networks still down, news of the airlift spread by word-of-mouth, and requests came back to the pilots. On August 12, a frantic appeal for insulin reached them. Balter said they learned a 100-pound shipment of the vital medicine was stuck on the Big Island.

"As soon as we got word, we deployed," Balter said. "Actually Garrett … it was his turn to fly."

Balter said the Cirrus made short work of the inter-island transfer. "I know that saved lives."

It was unclear how much longer single-engine piston airplanes, and twins, would be crucial to the logistics of relief and recovery. Balter established a GoFundMe page for donations to help cover fuel expenses, and was collecting fuel receipts from participating pilots for reimbursement from the fund. Donors had pledged nearly $32,000 toward the $50,000 goal by August 14, the majority from fellow pilots who have flown with Balter's Maui Flight Academy, augmented by members of the local community. "We're burning it, and we want to burn every penny of it to continue doing the efforts that we're doing," Balter said.

Balter said the effort was similar in many ways to GA relief that was provided to Haiti following catastrophic earthquakes in recent years, or any number of post-hurricane efforts benefiting communities in the United States and the Caribbean, though in some respects the Maui airlift was more personal. Maui, like other Hawaiian islands, is a close-knit community where there are few strangers. Once people in the valley became aware that Kapalua Airport had become a link to the outside world, they came bringing more supplies for the pilots to carry around the mountain.

"We've had people just drive up to the hangar, who I've never seen before, saying, 'Can you take this to the other side?’" Balter said. In some cases, boxes marked for a particular person were loaded and delivered. "We mark the boxes with their name on it."

Balter said the effort was rewarding for all concerned, a chance to do something to help amid mind-boggling tragedy and loss. On the receiving end of the airlift, people made their way to Kapalua to watch aircraft arrive, and some approached the willing pilots with additional requests.

"It was really heartwarming to see there were some people on, as we were on approach, on our base leg, you know, just kind of waving to us like, you know, giving us a thank you," Balter said. "Because they realized that this was their only lifeline."

It will take years, Balter said, for Lahaina to recover, though the rest of Maui was spared the kind of devastation visited on the western shore by wind-driven walls of flame. Balter said that the airlift could help make more people aware that GA is a resource any community should prize, composed of pilots who are ready and willing to help in time of need, with some unique capabilities at their disposal.

"This is the message that if Santa Monica can hear, and all these other airports around the country, the communities and municipalities there that want to shut down airports: GA, we're out there, we're willing to help," Balter said. "Cutting us off and closing down airports? Bad idea."


Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, People, Flight School

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