Business aviation rallies to help Haiti quake victims

 - January 26, 2010, 9:49 AM

Business aviation has been at the vanguard of the humanitarian response to the 7.0 earthquake that reduced Haitian capital Port-au-Prince to a shambles, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands of people and displacing more than a million others.

With scheduled airline service to the city’s damaged Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport cut, its harbor clogged with debris and the military relief effort spooling up slowly, business aviation was the answer for charity organizations looking for transportation into the ravaged country. “The earthquake hit on January 12 and NBAA almost immediately got lots of calls from people in all corners of the industry who wanted to help,” said Dan Hubbard, NBAA’s senior vice president of communications. The association’s Airmail Web forum soon lit up with offers of assistance from people in the industry. Flight planning companies such as Jeppesen provided free trip routing for flights heading to Haiti, while some FBOs offered fuel discounts for relief missions. While other companies chose to make financial contributions to the effort, Jet Support Services donated 20,000 pounds of supplies and assigned staff to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to assist with aircraft loading and other tasks. As an incentive to their clients, the company also waived the payment for flight hours of aircraft enrolled in their engine or airframe maintenance plans that were used in the relief effort.

Noting with pride that “we know of at least eight Falcon operators among the numerous missions...into Haiti,” Dassault Falcon president John Rosanvallon added that his company, at the request of Care, had sent its Falcon 900EX EASy demonstrator from Fort Lauderdale to Cap-Haitien Airport (MTCH) carrying two doctors, two first responders, five nurses and two nurse practitioners, along with medical supplies.

Bombardier responded to the disaster with monetary donations to relief agencies ($500,000 from the J. Armand Bombardier Foundation and $650,000 from the company) and airplane availability in the form of a company Global loaded with medical personnel and supplies from Toronto and Flexjet Challenger 300 flights (paid for by Flexjet owners) from Omaha and Teterboro.

Cessna is encouraging owners of its aircraft to register with NBAA’s aircraft volunteer list, and parent company Textron made a $50,000 donation to the American Red Cross’s Haiti Disaster Fund. Gulfstream parent company General Dynamics made a “significant” (but undisclosed) donation to Project Hope, a medical relief charity sending doctors and supplies to Haiti. Embraer made a “significant” donation to the Red Cross, but attempts failed to partner with an airline customer and bankroll a relief flight. At press time, Hawker Beechcraft was still discussing whether to donate money or equipment.

Many business aviation entities contacted NBAA looking to lend a hand.

To catalog the offers of assistance, the organization quickly set up a Web page (www.nbaa.com/haiti) that acted as a clearinghouse where those interested in volunteering could register their available aircraft or their aviation industry skills. In the first week after the disaster, more than 140 companies had offered use of more than 280 aircraft, including 66 jets, 62 turboprops and seven helicopters, along with nearly 150 pilots ranging in experience from VFR private pilots through type-rated pilots with ATP certificates, and some retired airline captains who are still current in other aircraft. NBAA provided the registry to government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) critical incident management group, as well as non-governmental organizations such as the American Red Cross, Air Care Alliance and other smaller missionary support groups.

The Helicopter Association International also received a flood of requests from operators seeking to help with the relief effort. HAI established a “First Responders” volunteer database in 2006, in which operators could list their helicopters, base of operations, capabilities and contact information. The organization provided that list–which has swelled to more than 500 rotorcraft–to the DHS to facilitate the deployment of needed aircraft.

Spirit of Volunteerism

One industry-based relief organization seeing its first activation was Corporate Aircraft Responding in Emergencies (Care). Founded during the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the group is a network of aviation specialists that seeks to match business aviation resources with those in need during catastrophic events. Since the earthquake, Care has fielded numerous requests from medical professionals, including some from the government’s Centers for Disease Control and charity organizations such as the Salvation Army, seeking transport into Haiti as well as from groups within the shattered country seeking to have wounded and children rescued. It has so far facilitated several missions. Through Care’s efforts, personnel and supplies were landed not just in Port-au-Prince but in other now isolated areas of Haiti such as Jacmel and Cap Haitien. The Leogane region, which was even closer to the quake’s epicenter and isolated from the rest of the country, finally began to receive supplies several days after the disaster when Tradewinds Aviation began landing its Grand Caravans on a stretch of road (see box below).

More than a week after the initial quake, the organization was still working through a backlog of more than 100 medical and first response teams waiting to get into Port-au-Prince.

“General aviation is responding fantastically as far as ‘What do you want us to do, where do you want us to go?’ said Marianne Stevenson, Care president and CEO of Sacramento, Calif.-based Strategy Aero Group. “Our big problem is that we want to maximize the effort in coordination with the governmental processes that are in place right now.” As those organized relief efforts increase, Stevenson sees business aviation’s role eventually diminishing. “Care is about being a first responder and getting in there to assist when there is no other food, no other medicine, no other anything to get to these people, and that’s what we are trying to do. When the powers that be have everything going, we want to transition everything over to them.”

Venice, Fla.-based nonprofit Agape Flights has been using aircraft in support of missionaries in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years. While its volunteer-pilot-flown cargo-hauling King Air C90 would typically make one flight a week, stopping at six locations on the island, in the first week after the disaster the turboprop twin made four round trips. In addition to lending out its pilots for their experience in flying in the Haiti area, the missionary support group is looking toward the future and negotiating loans with the owners of other aircraft, including a Fairchild Metroliner, to accommodate the flight tempo needed to deliver the increasing amount of donated goods. “This is not going to go away in a few weeks,” said Dick Armstrong, Agape’s interim executive director.

A Constantly Changing Picture

Statistics provided by flight tracking provider FlightAware show that nearly 100 general aviation aircraft flew from the U.S. into Port-au-Prince in the first five days
after the airport was reopened to humanitarian flights. According to the Haiti flight operations coordination center (HFOCC), organized by the U.S. military and the FAA at the request of the Haitian government to manage flights into the area, of the 330 flights approved for landing between January 16 and 18, nearly half were civilian aircraft, with the remainder being military aircraft or those dispatched by foreign governments.

Those early flights encountered difficulties with runway saturation, ground holds, a lack of uncontaminated fuel and occasional confusion as to whether they could bring back passengers from the stricken Caribbean nation. Because the airport was no longer in a condition to handle passenger security screening, even jetliners that were sent down packed with relief personnel and supplies in many cases returned empty, despite the thousands waiting for flights out of the chaos.

On its Web site, NBAA provided users with the latest operational updates for flights heading into Haiti. The organization’s general aviation desk was in routine contact with a crisis-management team at the FAA’s command center, which supplied information as the procedures for access to Toussaint L’Ouverture Airport changed. Soon after the HFOCC became operational, a landing slot protocol was established and it quickly gained a 90-percent compliance rate among inbound flights.

One of the bottlenecks at the onset of the relief effort stemmed from the pace at which aircraft were unloaded and turned, thus clogging crucial ramp space. This, coupled with the fact that debris had rendered the airport’s GA ramp unusable, limited the number of aircraft that could be accommodated on the ground. As the pace of the relief efforts accelerated, aircraft were soon being unloaded and turned on average in an hour, and the airport was handling more than 40 movements per hour. Another early difficulty was the lack of uncontaminated fuel at the airport.
Notifications were quickly posted warning pilots to make sure they carried enough fuel for the return trip.

While the situation in Haiti will remain critical for the foreseeable future, some see business aviation’s role in the relief efforts soon changing to one of supplemental transport. One week after the quake, Care announced it will begin to transition to the use of larger aircraft leaving from centralized staging areas, so as to take up fewer of the crucial landing slots into Port-au-Prince. Corporate aircraft contributions would still be required to ferry medical personnel and supplies domestically to those U.S. staging areas, and to serve smaller areas in the outlying Haitian communities where roads are still impassable.

“Big airplanes carrying lots of people or things are likely to be the preferred method of travel,” said Doug Carr, NBAA’s vice president of safety, security and regulation. “We’re trying to figure out if there is going to be some central collection point for this stuff in Florida, which I think would take a lot of pressure off small individual operators to do something, but we’ve got to let the government mechanism spool up here so that they can really take a leadership role in making things happen.”

One Pilot’s Experience

Perhaps typical of the confusing and chaotic environment faced by the relief flights was the experience of Robert Tod, director of operations at Stratford, Conn.-based Volo Aviation and husband of AIN staffer Victoria Tod. After the owner of a Volo-managed GIV offered the use of the aircraft, Tod quickly responded to a request for a relief flight by Care and was tasked with carrying 14 medical personnel from the charity health organization Partners in Health–and their equipment–from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. As the medical supplies were loaded on board the twinjet in preparation for the January 16 flight, the doctors and nurses realized it could not carry all the cargo they had brought in addition to their luggage. Most elected to leave their baggage behind rather than offload any of the precious supplies.

Tod had been told that he would be ferrying a group of orphans back on the return leg, the legality of which he confirmed with an airport customs inspector before departure. Yet, in mid-flight, he was notified that Customs had given him incorrect information and that the orphans would not be allowed into the U.S. without the proper paperwork.

The one-hour 35-minute flight to Haiti was relatively normal, according to Tod, including the communications and approach into Port-au-Prince, but that changed the moment he opened the cabin door. Within seconds, he was approached by three separate people who told him that their group would be flying back on his aircraft. While the Gulfstream was quickly and efficiently unloaded by members of Partners in Health, Tod dealt with sorting out whom he would be ferrying back. The group finally allowed on board included several American health charity workers who had been trapped in Haiti when the quake struck. One of them was Louise Ivers, an infectious-disease specialist and one of the few doctors remaining in Port-au-Prince, who had been performing surgery and amputations without food or sleep for days despite her own injuries; others were a well-to-do Haitian family who held the proper U.S. visas.

As he prepared for departure, Tod noticed one other Haitian, a late teen who was seated in the cabin holding a newspaper in front of his face. When the flight attendant asked him for his passport, the youth replied in broken English that he had already given it to her and, when contradicted, moved to the back of the aircraft and locked himself in the lavatory. “I thought he was doing one of two things, he’s either hoping we forget he’s back there or he’s going back to get a weapon to hijack the airplane, neither of which was a good option,” Tod told AIN.

After breaking open the lavatory door, Tod was dumbfounded by the sight of the youth attempting to bathe in the tiny sink. “He looked at me and he’s got soap all over his arms and his face so I let him rinse off,” said Tod. “He told me he was very thirsty so I gave him 10 bottles of water and escorted him off the airplane. It was one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever had to do.”

All told, the flight was on the ground for two hours, and on departure Tod saw the earthquake devastation clearly in a neighborhood to the north of the airport. “It was certainly one of the more interesting experiences in my entire life and was much more emotionally draining than I thought it would be, only after the fact looking back,” he said, adding that he would absolutely go back for another flight if needed.

Tradewind Caravans Bring Supplies to Isolated Parts of HaitiWhile the devastation in Port-au-Prince dominated the media’s attention, other areas of the Caribbean nation were heavily damaged as well. Leogane, approximately 20 miles from the Haitian capital, was the epicenter of the 7.0 earthquake; reports suggest that more than 20,000 people there were killed and up to 90 percent of its buildings were destroyed. With the disruption of roads into the city, the prospect of aid reaching the area was slim until Tradewind Aviation began landing its Cessna Grand Caravans on a flat stretch of road in a mission organized by industry response group Care. According to David Zipkin, vice president of the Oxford, Conn.-based charter provider, a low-wing aircraft could not land there because the 25-foot-wide road is bordered by brush and small trees. Starting four days after the earthquake, a pair of Tradewind Caravans made three round trips daily from Santiago in the Dominican Republic, ferrying medical personnel and dropping off food and other supplies. For most of the year, Tradewind operates a fleet of 11 turboprops and jets in on-demand and scheduled commuter service between New York-area airports and the summer retreats of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. During the winter, some of the aircraft fly south to a temporary base in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “The airplanes were already down there; that’s why we were able to respond so quickly,” explained Zipkin. While the Caravans can land heavily loaded on the 1,200-foot usable stretch of road, the available length precludes them from taking off with passengers in the empty cabin. On one flight, the crew dropped off a chainsaw for felling trees along the road, thus lengthening the “runway.” While the first flights were greeted solely by aid workers who unloaded and distributed the supplies, word spread quickly among the quake survivors, requiring the presence of UN soldiers to protect the landing area from mobs seeking whatever came off the airplanes.