Katrina recovery efforts get a lift from business aviation

 - October 1, 2005, 10:03 AM
Photo taken from a Cessna 172 1,500 feet above New Orleans only begins to show the destruction the city suffered. (Photo: David A. Lombardo)

Words and pictures cannot fully convey what has happened to the city of New Orleans. Several miles away at 5,500 feet, the air in the cabin of the Cessna 172 told us we were approaching the city before the haze let up enough for us to see it. Matt Thompson, a contract King Air 350 corporate pilot based in Baton Rouge, was flying the aircraft. He’d made it clear that it was restricted airspace and the aircraft couldn’t descend below 5,500 feet.

In back was Tommy Crump, a medical equipment salesman and long-time civilian pilot who’d spent the previous week, immediately after Hurricane Katrina, driving his boat through the streets of New Orleans helping rescue survivors. It was his first chance to see the big picture. Next to him was John Chapman, pilot and traffic reporter for Baton Rouge’s Shadow Broadcasting. The purpose of the flight was to get pictures of Lakefront Airport.

Omaha Control (an AWACS circling overhead) wanted to know why we were flying on the edge of the restricted area. Thompson shrugged his shoulders and rolled the dice, telling them his passenger wanted to get some photos for the article he was writing for Aviation International News. There was a pause and suddenly the restricted area opened wide. We were cleared in and given carte blanche to fly anywhere over the city of New Orleans–“maintain VFR from the Black Hawks.” Thompson reduced power and we descended.

At 1,500 feet directly over New Orleans the stench was so bad that the back-seat passengers requested that we open the windows just to keep the air moving. The smell of sewage, death, fuel and an infinite variety of household and industrial chemicals was pervasive. It was the smell of a city dying.

“If you see the letter X with a number, that means there is that number of dead there to be taken out,” Crump said. “A zero means there are people who need to be evacuated.”

Thompson pointed to some houses. “You can see where people tore holes in their roof trying to get out.” But even the view at 1,500 feet didn’t reveal the true cost of Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina has resulted in at least $125 billion in economic damage and could cost the insurance industry up to $60 billion in claims, according to Risk Management Solutions of Newark, Calif. The previous record was set by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 at almost $21 billion in insured losses in today’s dollars.

At press time it is estimated that more than 400,000 people have lost their jobs in the path of Hurricane Katrina; most of them are now homeless. Gas costs have soared, and shipping traffic is bogged down because the Port of New Orleans is closed. On the other hand, relief money, supplies and medical aid are pouring in faster than for any other natural disaster in U.S. history.

Notwithstanding the negative stories portrayed in the media there have also been many heroic actions, including what is probably the largest medical research rescue mission ever completed. Trident Aviation of Newton, N.J., Phazar Aerocorp and Phazar Flight Support of Fort Worth, Texas, Rubloff Development of Rockford, Ill., and others teamed with the Louisiana State Police helicopter operation to rescue a medical research team and tens of millions of dollars in research investment from Tulane University Research Center. Critical blood and tissue samples from patients had to remain frozen or they would be lost.

According to Dr. Tyler Curiel, without the analysis of the tissue it would be impossible to determine why various treatments worked or failed and patients would have been exposed to major risks for no good purpose. The samples were irreplaceable cells obtained and grown from different types of cancer.

“Some of these are unique, and no one else in the world has been able to do this,” Curiel said. “We have made genetically engineered cells and we have genetically engineered pathogens that are also unique and do not exist anywhere else in the world. If they thaw they become useless. These materials as a whole represent potential new treatments (we hate to say cures) for many types of cancer and also for certain types of infection, including malaria.

“They represent major new strides in research that would have been lost and taken years to re-create. Some could never have been re-created. Our cancer research is dramatically different from what anyone else has ever done. The technology we are developing theoretically works to treat any type of cancer. Up until now, cancer treatments have been specific for one kind of cancer.” The team extracted the researchers and the cells, flew them to Fort Worth and got them set up in a stable environment.

Not all stories ended as happily. Capt. David Rowland, a Gulfstream III pilot for a private investor based in New Orleans, said he operated out of Million Air on Lakefront Airport (NEW). The FBO was hit hard, with part of its facility collapsing.

“We’ve had to relocate our entire operation to Houston Hobby, where we already had space in the Enterprise Jet Center hangar,” he said. “But we lost a lot of our ground equipment, including air conditioners, jacks, a ground power unit, oxygen cart, a lot of spare parts and office equipment; we probably lost a couple of hundred thousand dollars in equipment.”

Rowland said the company’s flight attendant lost his house and all his possessions but fortunately was able to evacuate his mother with him to Houston, where they’re living in temporary housing. “The other three of us didn’t get hit at all, so we’ll continue to live here and use some temporary housing in Houston while working there. We’ll just wait it out until we can move back to New Orleans.”

FBOs Regain Their Footing

The devastation at Lakefront Airport was extensive, with many of the buildings heavily damaged if not entirely destroyed; many suggest it will take a long time to reopen. Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY), on the other hand, is again open for business and the airlines have begun limited schedules.

Sue Sommers, v-p of sales and marketing for Atlantic Aviation, said the company’s Louis Armstrong International Airport facility was fully open and extremely busy within two weeks. “We’re fully operational. We have rental cars now, we’ve even started baking cookies again and we’re offering most of the usual amenities, though most transients don’t remain overnight simply because there are no hotels. We used to see about 170 aircraft a day and I think today we got 19. The number inches up one or two more every day. I know Signature is up and running, too.

“The bad news is that our Lakefront operation was devastated,” Sommers said, “but the good news is we’ve moved all our employees to here, everyone is positive and we’re dedicated to rebuilding and making it even better this time.”

Business Aviation Pitches In

In the aftermath of Katrina NBAA’s Internet-based Air Mail became a forum for those
in need to connect with those who had resources to offer. An NBAA spokesman said the association set up a database to allow companies to register assets with the association, so that they could coordinate resources with needs. Operators registered more than 175 aircraft. NBAA has also been in contact with several government entities and has shared the information gathered with government and civilian relief organizations.

The Web site also has links to continually updated situation reports (SitReps) from the Department of Homeland Security and FAA concerning airport conditions for the Gulf Coast region. NBAA staff worked with the Department of Homeland Security to distribute SitReps to members because many companies contacted NBAA about getting aircraft into the region to deliver supplies, transport evacuees and survey damage to property.

What has been apparent to everyone on the scene is that business aviation immediately jumped into the relief efforts. Many corporations bought supplies outright, loaded them on their aircraft and flew them to the Gulf area. A more common use of NBAA’s Air Mail list was for flight departments to match requests with routes they were going to fly for business. When they found a match they would contact the appropriate person and piggyback the aid on their trip. Sometimes it would be bringing in supplies, sometimes taking people out, sometimes both.

Without a doubt, one of the most powerful organizers in the wake of Katrina has been Angel Flight America (www.angelflight america.org). It is a national network of seven autonomous groups that arrange free flights for patients and their families in private airplanes to hospitals for medical treatment. They also provide free flights in the event of a national crisis or whenever there is a compelling human need. The organization is a non-profit grassroots volunteer corps of more than 5,000 pilots from all 50 states. In 2003 members provided more than 17,000 flights.

Angel Flight response from all seven regions was immediate, and FBOs, corporate flight departments and other providers offered their support. At Atlanta’s DeKalb- Peachtree Airport (PDK) the pilots got little sleep. “It was a celebration of pilots congregating to see where they could go to drop supplies and pick up survivors so they could reunite families,” Kathy Parks, president of Explicitly Yours Corporate, a corporate travel planner based at the airport, told AIN.

“Mercury Air Center PDK donated hangar space for the supplies, and it would fill with items every day of the week,” Parks said. “At the end of each day the replacement donations would exceed what was flown out earlier in the day. The wonderful thing was that the joint effort of Angel Flight, pilots and community volunteers was able to accommodate the smaller towns that needed supplies just as much as the bigger cities.”

Clyde Domengeaux, a pilot for Wing Aviation in Conroe, Texas, flies a King Air 200 Wing manages for a private owner. “The owners donated air time and expenses for an Angel Flight,” he said. “We flew in medical supplies, water and other equipment to Pascagoula, Miss. Angel Flight then arranged for us to pick up four Red Cross evacuees in Baton Rouge and take them to Houston, where they were met by Angel Flight ground personnel and transported elsewhere.

“When the airport manager in Pascagoula heard what we were doing he immediately said the fuel was on him. I had to argue with the guy to keep him from topping us off. I felt so guilty about his generosity, so we settled on 150 gallons. We’ve been seeing everyone everywhere doing that sort of thing.”

Gale Tynefield, Angel Flight liaison pilot in Conroe, said everyone wanted to start helping as soon as Katrina hit. According to Tynefield there are about 200 pilots and 40 aircraft involved with Angel Flight in the Houston area.

“Within Angel Flight we have HSeats (homeland security emergency air transportation system),” he explained. “It’s a special standby unit ready to go on either a two- or six-hour response, depending upon what the pilot has agreed to. We were ready to go immediately, but our supervisor in Dallas said there were a lot of factors and they weren’t sure who was going to do what in the first few days. You might remember there was a sniper scare for a while. Our executive director flew to the scene to meet with authorities, and they formulated an organized approach to help evacuate people and aid in bringing supplies in.”

Individuals Offer Help

Help came from all corners of the nation, and while corporate aviation had the heavy iron and checkbook to participate in a big way, it would be a significant oversight not to mention the huge number of other aircraft involved, all the way down to singles. Western Aircraft, operating PC-12s under a contract with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, flew to Baton Rouge with two passengers and 1,783 pounds of cargo consisting of portable weather stations and radio equipment. After a five-and-a-half hour one-way flight they delivered the men and gear then turned around, flew to Boise and went back to work. Others weighed in with donations.

S-Tec president Michael McMillan challenged his employees to donate to the Katrina Relief Fund on September 2, saying the company would match employees’ donations. By the close of business the next day more than 200 employees had donated $5,000. McMillan extended the deadline and the employees ultimately contributed $7,000. S-Tec’s parent company, Meggitt, also committed to matching S-Tec’s total donation, so the Red Cross received a $28,000 check from the autopilot manufacturer.

Avantair pilot Bob Andrea and copilot Ryan Welch flew one of the fractional provider’s Piaggio Avantis from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Lafayette, La., on Sept. 1. The flight was critical to early response efforts because it carried tetanus vaccine packages. Upon arrival the vaccine was immediately unloaded and driven away for distribution to Katrina victims.

The Epicenter of Relief Efforts

While help came in many forms from many places, the epicenter of the relief effort was Baton Rouge, La.

Baton Rouge was a city caught in the middle. Everyone evacuating New Orleans had to go through the city, as did everything going into New Orleans. The city swelled in population overnight. There was a never-ending eastbound line going into Baton Rouge carrying everything from portable buildings and outhouses to military vehicles, boats and tractor trailers full of supplies; it all came to a standstill when it hit the city.

Eastbound out of Baton Rouge was eerily quiet. It is a self-regulated stretch of Interstate 10 because 79 miles down the road is the end of civilization, the land of Black Hawk helicopters and rescue personnel that at least for a while were often accompanied by armed military troops.

Chapman said that road traffic increased by about 50 percent during the week after the hurricane hit. “My shift starts at 6:45 a.m. and I usually don’t see any traffic delays anywhere on the interstates until right around my first broadcast at 7:09,” he said. “Now it’s solid traffic throughout both I-10 and I-12 by the time I’m up. All the major interstates are clogged for two hours every morning and all the main surface streets are loaded. I just keep trying to redirect people on the ground as best I can to keep traffic moving. It’s like having a major accident happening somewhere all the time.”

While the city of Baton Rouge is overflowing with evacuees, filling all the churches and public venues, straining the restaurants and public services, it is the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport (BTR) that bears the true brunt of the aftermath. Just about everyone and everything passes through, and often stays at, BTR.

Heather Howitt, an active-duty firefighter from the Southwest Region Wildland Fire Fighters Mescalara Apache Reservation in New Mexico, brought her firefighting group composed of Apache, Zuni, Hopi and Southern Pueblo tribe members. “My team of 20 worked at distribution centers handing out ice, water and food to evacuees in New Orleans,” she said. In all, more than 200 Southwest Region Wildland Fire Fighters came from different areas and were massed at the airport.

Josie Dittrich, media events coordinator for CitiHope International, a health education foundation based in Winchester, Va., and Susan Sweeney with Angel Flight Project, coordinated a major airlift into Baton Rouge. CitiHope normally does international relief work with programs in about 45 countries. “This is actually our first domestic operation,” Dittrich said, “but because of the size of the disaster we had a need to respond.”

Dittrich was there delivering pharmaceutical and medical supplies to public hospitals. “The population of Baton Rouge has doubled in the past two weeks, and the hospitals are overwhelmed with patients from New Orleans. We’re bringing in supplies to fill the gap, and the only way we can do this is with the help of a lot of professional pilots donating their time and aircraft.

“They’re transporting supplies to here from our warehouse in Virginia. They’re coming from all over the East Coast and Angel Flight is coordinating the corporate aircraft,” she said.

Dittrich was waiting for the arrival of a Sabreliner 65 donated by Kim Foley of Foley. It was flying in $400,000 in medical supplies. “We’re also waiting for a Cessna Citation to arrive and yesterday a small Piper brought in 350 pounds of supplies,” she said.

“So far we’ve brought down more than $1.5 million in supplies, and we simply would not be able to do it if it weren’t for all the companies and individuals donating their time and aircraft. Just our little operation has used 10 aircraft and every airplane they’ve made available to us we’ve filled with supplies.”

Business Aviation Shows Its Colors

One helper commented, “You watch the news and it’s all about who didn’t do what. Nobody is reporting that it’s the business community that’s donating corporate aircraft, pilots and huge amounts of money to make this work. Nobody else has the lift capability and flexibility to get the job done. No one, not the military, not the airlines, no one except private aviation; that’s who’s been the real first responder.” Robin Diamond of Louisiana Aircraft was keeping track of those aircraft. The company is a full-service FBO, and Diamond coordinates the charter department. “It’s been amazing to see the number of airplanes that have come here carrying supplies. Some were already allocated to Red Cross, FEMA or a specific church, but often they would arrive and just drop things off,” she said.

“They’d say they were coming here anyway so they just gathered diapers, food, medical supplies or whatever they could find and brought them along. We were able to use quite a bit of the unallocated supplies right here because we had a lot of evacuees and all of the rescue crews, firemen, policemen, and civilian and military pilots. We were feeding about 350 people a day.”

Diamond called local restaurants and had food donated daily to provide hot meals. “We had so many people in here the past two weeks you couldn’t walk through the lobby,” she said. “The workers were going around-the-clock and grabbing a little sleep in our offices when they could. We were all working overlapping 15-hour days to keep the place open. It was amazing how the whole company pulled together and worked wherever they were needed. One minute I’d be answering the phone, the next I’d be out unloading an airplane, then I’d be back here making meals. Everyone did what they had to do and there were no complaints.”

Diamond said, “I’d say 60 percent of all the aircraft we saw were directly involved in one way or another, and we’re talking about 200 flights a day for the week immediately after Katrina hit. While it has tapered off some at this point we’re still getting quite a few flights every day. The Wall Street Journal reported that for several days in a row we were the second busiest airport in the U.S.”

Terry Smith, lead supervisor of line service for Louisiana Aircraft, said, “I worked 104 hours last week and this week I’ll have about 95,” he said. “It’s been crazy out here. Airlines, small aircraft, business jets, military aircraft; it was just wild. There’s no way we could have handled this on our own.

“Fortunately we had several FBOs send us people to help out. We had a man from Albuquerque, a couple of guys from Dallas, a guy from McKinney, Texas. We had fuel trucks show up from all over the country just because other FBOs knew we would need them. We had about 10 people on the line working 14 to 18 hours a day.”

Smith said he was astounded by the sheer magnitude of support he saw. “We had a baby here yesterday that couldn’t have been more than a couple of pounds. Someone flew in, picked him up and took him to a children’s hospital somewhere in Tennessee.

“John Travolta landed in his Boeing 707 filled with supplies; he even drove one of the trucks to deliver them. Nice guy; he let me take my picture with him. Oprah [Winfrey] came in with a GII and a GIV both filled with supplies. All kinds of famous people–such as Andy Garcia, Tommy Lasorda, Matthew McConaughey, Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr.– showed up to help out.”

The common feeling among everyone who worked the line was that the aircraft operators, famous or not, were a humble lot and just wanted to help.

Coordinating with the Military

Rock Thompson, operations manager for Executive Aviation, an FBO on the airport, said, “Business just went through the roof. It was like we were trying to put out a house fire with an eye dropper. Overnight our business increased about 1,000 percent. We’re the government refueler for Baton Rouge and they just blew us out of the water. The infrastructure in any business grows slowly over time as the demand increases. You add and train people and add facilities to meet a slowly increasing demand, but this happened overnight. We went from maybe five or six transient aircraft a day to more than 60!”

Thompson said the military arrived and asked if they could use a portion of Executive Aviation’s facility. “We let them take over our pilot lounge and they used some of our ramp space, but they were nice about it. Capitol Jet Center (the third FBO on the field) got a lot more of the military operation,” he said.

“We have a good relationship with them, so I was over there trying to help them as much as I could. They were mainly parking Chinooks; you know they make a huge mess. You simply can’t commingle Chinooks with fixed-wing aircraft. Those two big rotors will literally blow you off your feet and topple small aircraft. I think the military pretty much took over their ramp because they’re a somewhat smaller operation and didn’t have any aircraft on the ramp at the time.”

Thompson said that when the military first arrived there were some major problems with communications. “There were so many different elements involved that they weren’t communicating with one another,” he explained. “There was no coordination as to where specific activities were going to take place, so you had every kind of activity imaginable being shot-gunned all over the airport. After a few days they settled in and got more organized, but for a while you’d have Black Hawks parked here, Chinooks parked over at Capitol and something else in another spot. It was chaotic, and refueling was a nightmare.”

One immediate problem was fuel demand. While Executive Aviation had the government refueling contract, the facility was never intended to handle the volume required during the Katrina recovery. “The quantity in gallons that the military required was staggering. We couldn’t keep up with it. We were pumping it much faster than we could replenish it,” Thompson said.

“After a few days the military brought in its own tankers and began supplying its own fuel. That alleviated the tremendous strain on our facility, but the military was still using our ramp,” he added.

Thompson said that while Executive Aviation probably lost a lot of transient business during the peak days, it wasn’t hurt financially because of the tremendous amount of fuel it pumped. “When we ran out of fuel Atlantic Aircraft helped us out because they hold more than we do. That was the nice thing about all this. Everyone got along, pitched in and helped one another. All three FBOs really meshed well and got done what needed to be done.”

Before Katrina, BTR was a 300-operations-a-day airport, said Thompson. “Overnight we went to the second busiest airport in the country, but it worked great–no accidents, no incidents and no problems. It went unexpectedly smoothly. But we’re used to pampering our transients, and all that went out the window. It became, ‘Give me what you need in three words or less and the phone number for Flight Service is on the wall,’” he laughed.

“I had one family land in an Excel on their way to Florida for a wedding. He requested a quick-turn, usually eight or nine minutes, but I told him it’d be an hour and apologized profusely. It didn’t faze him one bit; he understood completely and no one ever complained.”

Tim Pfeifer, a lineman at Capitol Jet Center, said he’d been with the company about 13 months and had learned more in the past week than in the entire time preceding it. “It’s been amazing dealing with everything while the Army was here. You know, it was kind of tough since they pretty much took over half our ramp, but they needed it and our owner agreed.

“The problem was that we couldn’t bring in the corporate jets. It eventually settled down and now we’re seeing more traffic flow than before, with New Orleans Lakefront being out. We’ve probably seen our business triple, but it’s been busy and tiring. Last week I did 61 hours and this past weekend I did 21 hours from 4 a.m. Saturday until 1 a.m. Sunday.”

That was common for every employee at the airport. Hours, meals, shifts, everything blurred; everyone worked all the time, catching a bite here, a few minutes off their feet there. One of the customer service reps, who had undertaken the responsibility of looking out for displaced people while they were at the airport, had been putting in 18-hour days.

“There is just so much to do, and they need everything,” she said. “Many came with the clothes on their back and nothing else. They’re hungry, their exhausted, they’re just plain scared. We do as much as possible just to give them a sense of security.”

“You must be exhausted. It must be hard getting up after only a few hours’ sleep and coming back to start all over again in the morning,” I said.

“No,” she replied. “The hard part is leaving them behind at the end of the day.”