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'We kept doing the missions'

West Maui GA airlift pilots get AOPA-championed relief from FAA

The FAA granted and expedited a regulatory exemption that AOPA sought on behalf of pilots flying supplies to West Maui for humanitarian relief in the wake of the devastating recent wildfires in Hawaii.

Photos courtesy of Laurence Balter.

AOPA petitioned the FAA on behalf of pilots (AOPA members and otherwise) who established an impromptu emergency airlift beginning August 11. They were among the first outsiders to reach the isolated coastal community at the epicenter of one of the worst disasters in state history, the magnitude of which was still becoming known 10 days later.

The airlift began with a single Cirrus SR22, and grew into a significant operation involving piston singles and twins as word spread via text messages and social media. The pilots, over the course of a few days, delivered thousands of pounds of food, water, medicine, pet food, and other urgently needed items to Kapalua Airport (also known as West Maui Airport) on the western shore of the island of Maui, a few miles north of the fire-ravaged community of Lahaina. Insulin was among the lifesaving deliveries, with a few flights made to transport shipments that had been mired in a combination of logistics (refrigeration is required) and paperwork delays.

“You know, with GA it’s, 'Throw it in the back and let’s go,” said Laurence Balter, a local flight school owner and one of the organizers of the airlift.

The FAA on August 17 granted the exemption AOPA sought, waiving the usual requirement for Federal Register publication to put the decision into immediate effect, removing any risk that pilots who are volunteering their time and aircraft will wind up subject to regulatory enforcement action for accepting reimbursement for their fuel. Balter, who organized the airlift with Maui Brewing Co. founder Garrett Marrero, has also raised donations online to be used to reimburse participating pilots for fuel.

Balter said in a video conference August 18 that the daily flights had slowed to a trickle as land and sea logistics ramped up, other than one more planned insulin delivery flight. Balter has collected fuel receipts from about a dozen pilots from various Hawaiian islands who have made flights since the West Maui airlift began August 11, but held off distributing any of the donations collected of it out of concern over the limitations in Part 91 that restrict certain pilots and aircraft from flying “for compensation or hire,” as the FAA defines that.

Balter said the FAA decision to grant the exemption was both appreciated and timely, with President Joe Biden expected to visit the island soon. “So, boy, it would be, you know, just a bloody nose if we all lost our certificates for doing the humanitarian aid that we did,” Balter said. “Great job to AOPA. This is what AOPA is for, guys. You know, GA pilots step up, AOPA stepped up to the plate. I had texts from [AOPA President] Mark Baker as he was flying in his airplane over the middle of the country over some other fires and he says, ‘We will get it done. We will get it taken care of.’ So, we kept doing the missions.”

The FAA agreed with AOPA’s analysis that the need for GA pilots remained even after the only road along the island’s perimeter that allows vehicle access to Lahaina was reopened. Balter noted that the road can be closed by vehicle accidents and other common incidents at any time, so the pilots will keep their cellphones handy in case additional needs arise during the long recovery ahead.

“The FAA understands that limited mobility exists on the roadways in West Maui at this point in time; accordingly, other airports on-island such as Kahului Airport which may be able to accommodate larger aircraft and more regular operations from part 119 certificated operators may not be sufficient to serve the needs of the relief efforts,” the agency wrote in the document granting AOPA’s requested exemption. “The FAA’s understanding of the situation on the ground, as presented by AOPA, is that smaller aircraft used by general aviation pilots are more suited to operations using the shorter runway at the West Maui airport. Additionally, this relief is time-limited in duration and only valid until the end of the month, which makes it unique from other requests for similar relief. The urgent and short-term nature of the relief does not allow the FAA to provide the part 119 certification that would otherwise be necessary for such operations.”

Baker thanked the FAA for acting promptly.

“The FAA’s quick action will further allow general aviation to do what it does best: Rally together and provide assistance when there are few other ways to reach those affected,” Baker said. “Our thoughts are with the residents on Maui, and we feel it’s our responsibility to play a role in the much-needed relief effort.”

These relief efforts along Maui’s western shore have been largely driven by ordinary citizens (Balter, Marrero, and the other airlift pilots included) working together, with limited direct government support in the early days, as CNN and others reported following the worst disaster in modern Hawaiian history. Cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes operated by ordinary citizens from all walks of life supplied pop-up relief stations set up around the disaster area. With more than 110 people confirmed dead and more than 1,000 people still unaccounted for as of August 18, following the wildfires that began August 8, the recovery effort will be measured in years. The FAA exemption, however, will not: it was granted through August 31.

“The relief required by the petitioner for private pilots to be reimbursed for fuel costs requires relief from Section 61.113(c). Because these relief flights may include more than just a single pilot onboard, the petitioner also requires relief from Section 61.113(a) as the flights may include a second pilot or another volunteer traveling with the supplies to and from the recovery efforts,” the FAA noted.

The FAA imposed a few conditions when granting the exemption: It may only be used by pilots operating to, from, or within the island of Maui providing humanitarian relief. Also, pilots exercising the privileges granted by the exemption are required to submit to the FAA (via the exemption docket) the names and identifiers of arrival and departure airports, the names of all aircraft occupants other than the pilot in command, dates and times of departures and arrivals, and the amount of fuel reimbursement received, within a month of receiving reimbursement.

Balter said he forwarded a copy of the exemption to all participating pilots, who are tracking those details on a shared online spreadsheet. “Everybody can see where the money is going. We may already have enough,” Balter said, referring to a GoFundMe page created to support the airlift with more than $40,000 in donations pledged as of August 18. Balter said The Sterling Foundation in Virginia had reached out with an offer to contribute, though he expects that the donations pledged to date—about 90 percent from AOPA members, Balter noted—would cover the reimbursements, even with avgas running around $10 per gallon on the islands.

Balter said that while West Maui remains a disaster area, he joined the governor in reminding mainland residents that the rest of the island is very much open for tourism, which is the economic lifeblood of the remote island state, accounting for 70 percent of the local economy. Balter said past customers, including pilots who took an airline to Hawaii to fly with his Maui Flight Academy, have reached out to ask whether they can come back to help.

“We can go fly, we can have a great time. For those of you who have considered stopping your vacation plans and pausing it, this is the best time, this is like lockdown,” Balter said. “I just flew final approach, and there were thousands, no joke, thousands of rental cars parked in the lot. The beaches are empty and the place is open, so if you really want to enjoy Maui like it was a hundred years ago, this is the time to come. We just have to avoid West Maui. But we need the tourist dollars.”

Balter said the West Maui airlift may have slowed, but the satisfaction of a job well done will stick with him and others who took part:

“It was kind of a brotherhood of pilots, and sisterhood, to help in the effort. It just made us feel really good.”

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: Advocacy, Pilot Regulation, People

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