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Helicopter pilots provide lifeline to trapped residents

Volunteers deliver supplies to mountain communities buried in snow

Editor's note: This story was updated March 16 to remove inaccurate information about locations used by relief aircraft. AOPA regrets the error.

In an “unprecedented effort” by local helicopter pilots in California, according to pilot and Lake Arrowhead resident Susan Newman Harrison, relief came to the snow-trapped villages of the San Bernardino Mountains via general aviation.

More than 500 volunteers collected 21,000 pounds of food and other essential supplies that were flown to people cut off by powerful snowstorms. Photo courtesy of CalDART.

More than 15 feet of snow has covered these usually scenic mountain towns that were hammered by a series of storms fed by atmospheric rivers flowing off the Pacific Ocean, dumping more water than the Mississippi River. The snow deluge trapped people inside their homes for more than two weeks. No food; no drinking water; impassable roads; medical emergencies; and, to add insult to injury, a grocery store that some residents could walk to was crushed by heavy snow.

Harrison and her husband Rob, also a pilot, live above Lake Arrowhead. Her home served as a weather station for the volunteer pilots who joined the California Disaster Airlift Response Team, better known as CalDART, a nonprofit organization, to deliver needed supplies to the mountain towns. CalDART answered the pleas from local residents through social media.

“About 500 volunteer locals coordinated through social media during the storm with the word out from local resident Lisa Griggs,” said Harrison. “We were first boots on the ground and in the air. Started with checking on neighbors and neighbors helping neighbors, as people were cut off from normal food supplies and roadways.” The volunteers formed Operation Mountain Strongand created a website to help organize their effort.

“When I saw the community social media pages and their stories, we all did what we could to get the word out,” said Harrison. More than 500 volunteers organized and gathered more than 21,000 pounds of food, necessities, and bottled water that a team of nine helicopters flew up to the mountains, landing by special permission on the small hospital helipad, and at a nearby parking lot.

“My husband Rob, known at airshows as the Tumbling Bear, and I visited the landing zones and supported with weather communication, donations, and food supply requests. We have also been visiting the Red Cross shelter, which was set up at our local high school, and we are making sure sheltered owners' and their animals' needs have been met,” she said.

Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART. Photo courtesy of CalDART.

Volunteers gathered needed supplies at local landing zones at the base of the mountains and volunteer pilots like Wes Klein, Micah Muzio, and Samuel Samuelian flew in often marginal VFR weather to deliver supplies. Muzio lives in Lake Arrowhead and said to news reporters, “For me, I can make it up to the mountain there in about seven minutes. It’s a very quick flight, back and forth. We have supplies over there, ready to run them up. We can move really, really fast.”

And as fast as they could this team of pilots loaded goods and flew them to those in need. “Nothing like this has been done before,” said Harrison. She’s lived on the mountain for more than 15 years. The most snow she has ever seen here is four feet. In early March, a photo taken by her husband showed the 12 feet of snow at her front door. “We bought this house up here because it feels like you are flying up here. Flying here is typically challenging because of the interesting winds. I acted as the weather station, telling the pilots to stand down when the winds got to be too much.” Winds topped 35 knots or more on some of the most challenging days.

“We’ve never seen this much snow. People were without food, lost power, had no heat. The roads were not [accessible] for 12 to 13 days. Some people were walking for miles to get help or food. Even once the main roads were clear, they were so narrow that only one vehicle could get through and if they met another, one would have to back up for miles,” she said.

“We lost Goodwin’s Supermarket as the entire roof collapsed leaving thousands of people without a place to get food. A second supermarket was red tagged due to a gas leak and weight of snow on the roof. Volunteers helped clear their roof, but it is still closed. Now just one supermarket was left to provide for about 60,000 mountain residents. The problem was, roads were not cleared, and some are still not cleared, leaving people to fetch…food by foot. Mind you, on over five feet of snow and in some areas, there are drifts 12 feet high,” she said. 

Harrison has a hangar at San Bernadino International Airport, and the airport offered to house the helicopters and the supplies. It’s a seven-minute flight up to Lake Arrowhead. “You go from 1,000 feet to 6,500 feet pretty quickly,” Harrison said. “And it’s usually a very bumpy flight. Mountain flying can be challenging due to weather and winds, and the weather is different at San Bernardino International Airport, which is just miles down the mountain. Having trust in each other on either side of the mountain was essential for safe operations,” she said.

“We set up multiple food distribution locations (currently there are nine), changing daily and going where the need was. We distributed 56,000 pounds of produce and 7,000 hot meals provided by World Central [Kitchen]. More than 20,000 people received donated food in a short period of time and most likely this saved many lives.” Food donations are still needed, and there are drop-off and distribution locations still in place as the area is still in recovery mode.

“This community up there has absolutely been amazing,” Klein said. “They’ve stepped up, they’ve really, really worked together. This is probably the best operation I’ve been on in 52 years.”

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
Topics: People, Mountain Flying, Weather

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