Special Olympics Airlift:

 - July 1, 2014, 5:35 AM
Whelen Engineering’s Sovereign, callsign “Dove One,” was the first of the 105 participating aircraft to land at Trenton Mercer, transporting athletes from Columbus, Ohio, to the games, which ran from June 14 to 21.

Asked to describe what he thought of the Citation Special Olympics Airlift (CSOA), Pete Bunce started to speak, but nothing came out of his mouth. The president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association looked around the ramp, waved a hand in the direction of all the tents, tugs, fuel trucks, hundreds of volunteers and, of course, a procession of Citation jets, but the words just weren’t there.

On June 14, the seventh running of the CSOA targeted Trenton (N.J.) Mercer County Airport (KTTN), supporting the Special Olympics National Games kicking off at several locations in the Trenton/Princeton area of the Garden State. Some 105 Citation flights arrived at TTN, carrying approximately 700 athletes, coaches and family members. The first Citation, arriving from Columbus, Ohio, landed at just after 8:30 a.m. The last straggler from California touched down at around 7 p.m.

This year, Textron Aviation added Beechcraft operators to the airlift for the first time in the event’s 27-year history. Kriya Shortt, senior v-p of sales and marketing, said, “We are proud to play a role in this event, a role that happens only because of the unwavering support of Citation and Beechcraft King Air customers. Our customers and employees truly enjoy the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the athletes and their families.” Shortt understated the feelings of many of the participants when she said, “The Citation Special Olympics Airlift is an inspiring display of the spirit of the general aviation community.”

Since the first CSOA in 1987 to support the South Bend, Ind., games, the volunteer effort has transported nearly 10,000 athletes, coaches and supporters from throughout the U.S. Successive Citation airlifts brought athletes to St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minn., in 1991; Hartford, Conn., in 1995; Raleigh-Durham, N.C., in 1999; Des Moines, Iowa, in 2006; and Lincoln, Neb., in 2010; and to New Jersey this year. Participation peaked at Raleigh-Durham in 1999, with 260 Citations carrying 2,000 athletes and coaches. Though numbers may be down since then, the enthusiasm and commitment of the volunteer aircraft operators has never been higher. Nor have their spirits.

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said, “This is business aviation at its best, so many people giving their time and talents to such a worthy cause. It makes me proud to be a part of it.”

Aircraft carrying athletes to the games are given “Dove” callsigns, derived from the original Citation airlift logo, which featured a dove in silhouette. For 2014, Dove One was a Citation Sovereign operated by Whelen Engineering, the aircraft lighting company. Chief pilot Jim Olson was in the left seat, with Dennis Piscitello acting as first officer. The Whelen Citation flew from its home base in Groton, Conn., to Columbus, Ohio, the night before. They loaded up early Saturday morning to be the first arriving flight, scheduled to touch down at 8:30 a.m.

Piscitello said, “This is the best flying in the world. We had all nine seats full, a smooth ride and it was a great flight. Isn’t it always?”

Controller Involvement

The preparation for this year’s airlift started more than two years ago. Rhonda Fullerton, Cessna’s CSOA director, learned where the games would be held–on the campuses of nearby Rider University and The College of New Jersey–and chose Trenton-Mercer County Airport as the main location for the airlift arrivals and departures. In addition, teams of volunteers were also assisting arrivals at Newark Liberty International Airport (KEWR) and Philadelphia International Airport (KPHL). Fullerton contacted Lillian Narvaez, COO of the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.

Fullerton said, “Lillian is one incredible lady. We knew that all we had to focus on was the airlift. Beyond that, Lillian’s people had the athletes covered from their home doors to the dorms, with welcoming events all along the way.” Narvaez said of the airlift, “It was the one area I knew I don’t have to worry about. The operation is like a well oiled machine. And everyone here understands the most important part: the athletes.”

Air traffic planning also goes way back, at least 18 months–more, in a way. Mike Artist is the FAA’s manager of tactical operations for the Southeast U.S., and has acted as “Dove Lead” for the past three airlifts. He tries to enlist as many as possible of the same personnel for every airlift, since they have built valuable experience.

Still, each airlift is a little different, he said, and the Trenton arrival path is set up to split between traffic to the north, eastbound over Allentown, Pa., and the flow to the south into Philadelphia International. Dove flights line up on the situation screen, neatly spaced for the occasional blast of the maximum rate of one arrival every 90 seconds.

“The first arrival at 8:30 accommodates US Airways traffic into PHL,” said Artist. He was looking down the barrel of a busy day, with a total of some 200 movements at TTN, since almost all of the arriving Dove flights would also be departing soon after. A quick turn for fuel and some high fives from the crowd, and most pilots would be headed back out on their way home.

Since Trenton has a non-FAA contract tower, the situation was a bit different from other airlifts. Artist said FAA controllers from Philadelphia Approach (which controls most traffic into TTN) were relocated to the tower cab. Artist and his crew were set up one story below the tower cab, monitoring traffic and calling out advisories to the crew in the tower via telephone or walkie-talkies. Clearance delivery was relocated to the tower cab.

“This operation involves coordination with Center controllers from Philly, Cleveland, Washington and New York,” said Artist. The training and coordination involved at least a few months’ work before the airlift dates, and he gave a shout out to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) for developing and implementing the training program.

That’s the technical side. Much more palpable was the warmth and feeling the controllers got from being involved in the airlift. Artist said, “They get to touch something that they usually never get to see. The interactions are very positive. Today, every controller east of the Mississippi is on the lookout for the Dove callsign. You can hear them thanking the pilots for participating. ‘Thank you. Would you like direct today?’”

The weather on CSOA arrival day could not have been better, with clear skies over most of the eastern half of the country. And weather is the wild card for CSOA operations. Artist said, “Bad weather can easily add three or four hours to the day. In Des Moines, there was a thunderstorm that arrived at the end of the runway at the same time as the last incoming Dove flight.”

Smallest Details Approached with Military Precision

ATC is high in priority, but just getting the athletes’ luggage to their correct dorm room is another major undertaking, and for this the Special Olympics turned to the U.S. military. Lt. Col. Pat McDonald, commander of the U.S. Army 119th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in Vineland, N.J., was in charge. Besides his own unit, he was assisted in transporting athletes’ luggage by the 253rd Transportation Co. out of Cape May/Atlantic City, N.J., and airmen from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Air Refueling Wing out of McGuire/Lakehurst, as well as personnel from the 177th Fighter Wing out of the Pomona base at Atlantic City. In all, 134 troops participated in supporting the games. McDonald was quick to shower praise on the games’ organizers.

“We got the mission in early May, and the [Special Olympics] staff has been great.” McDonald’s team was at least partially responsible for signage, tent setup, furniture deployment and other details that often go unnoticed. He was careful to recognize the airlift volunteers, staff and participants. Asked how he would evaluate the flight operations, the veteran officer called the airlift organization “incredible.”

In addition to Whelen Engineering (Dove One), participants ranged from single-pilot Mustangs flown by their owners to several Citation Xs, loaded with Special Olympics athletes. For example, Dove 39 was flown by a proud Steve Collins, proprietor of S.J. Collins Enterprises, a commercial real-estate developer and finance provider based in Fairburn, Ga. Collins picked up his athletes in Nashville and flew his Citation Bravo to Trenton. “This is my first time flying with the airlift,” said Collins beside his airplane, noting that the organization and procedures were exemplary.

Bob Wilson of Wilson Air Centers was among the pilots mingling on the flight line as they waited for their Citations to be refueled. Flying athletes and their supporters from his home base in Memphis, Tenn., Wilson was his usual jolly self–magnified by the warmth of the occasion. “We’ve done this every time we were operating a Citation,” he said, adding that his brother had also flown in with a group of athletes earlier in the day. “We had a blast. We brought each of them up front to sit in the cockpit, listen to the controllers through the headset and see what flying is all about.”

Greg Williams, son of engine designer Dr. Sam Williams and current chairman of Williams International, flew Dove 74, a Williams-powered Citation CJ, into Trenton with a cabin full of athletes from Michigan. As with all the Dove flights, he was greeted by NBAA’s Bolen, GAMA’s Bunce and his wife Patty, Cessna’s Kriya Shortt, Cessna senior v-p of integrated supply chains Ron Draper and a host of other dignitaries. The greeting committee performed yeoman duty, hustling to be on hand to welcome every airplane all day long. Late in the day, Dove 92 arrived from Austin, Texas, flown by Jerry Gregoire, owner of Redbird Flight Simulations.

For Artist and his FAA controller team, getaway day is not just a simple reversal of the process. “Ideally, we’d prefer to have 30 to 40 of the aircraft on the field the night before,” he said. The first athletes arrive at the airport around 7:30 in the morning, and with good weather he said they expect to finish departures by around 4 p.m.

Host FBO Gets It Done

The host FBO for the airlift was Ronson Aviation, recently acquired by Landmark in the Ross Aviation buy. General manager Wolcott Blair supervised the logistics with the practical skill of an engineer (which he is). He said, “We normally have three fuel trucks. Planning for the maximum number of incoming aircraft and the possible 90-second turnaround, we figured we’d need 10, with backup. Phillips supplied seven, and I found another two for a total of 12.”

The fueling stations were set up with trucks parked and connected to external power, just in case. As it happened, one of the trucks malfunctioned, so the extra uplift was appreciated. Blair recognized Phillips for its contribution, calculating the company had spent $80,000 to supply the trucks. “All for the program,” he said.

Ronson personnel cleared all 50 aircraft from the facility’s tiedown area and set up temporary tiedowns on the other side of the airport. Those tiedowns had to be removed at the end of the week, but that’s all part of the commitment, he said.

Standing unobtrusively among the pom-pom-waving cheerleaders and other well-wishers, Cindy McLeod from Fayetteville, N.C., waited for the arrival of her daughter, Lindsey, a Special Olympics bowler and one of the airlift passengers. “I drove all the way up here from Raleigh-Durham last night,” she said. “Left about 5:30. I got in here about 9 a.m., and the people here at Ronson Aviation were just as nice as can be. When I told them why I was here, they asked, ‘Do you need a place to lie down? Do you want to clean up?’ I can’t tell you how nice they were to me.”

Chalk up one more supporter for business aviation.