Florida FBOs Brace for Impact

 - October 2, 2012, 2:47 AM

Direct hurricane hits on Florida FBOs are rare, but all of them prepare.

The planning kicks off in spring, before the June through November hurricane season officially begins, and starts with that time-honored aviation document: the checklist. FBO managers and their staff sit down annually and scrub and expand the list as needed. Many contain specific timelines for implementation as it relates to projected storm landfall with items you would expect: fill the fuel farm, check generators, charge batteries, scrub their area of the airport for FOD, shutter windows, secure aircraft, pin hangars and lay in a food supply. Concurrently, based tenants get an annual letter reminding them of the season and the need to check insurance and have an aircraft evacuation plan. Some FBOs maintain a tenant hurricane call list.

“My first year down here was 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Wilma,” said John Tonko, line service manager for Banyan Aviation at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

“Welcome to Florida.”

Banyan has 400 based aircraft, 80 of them in hangars, and employs a line staff of 35. In late August it was staring down the barrel of Hurricane Isaac, which eventually broke west into the Gulf of Mexico but not before it had flooded portions of Banyan’s ramp. “It was stressful,” said Tonko, who scrambled to find hangars for an additional 75 aircraft that wanted shelter from Isaac.

Wilma, at its apex a Category 5 hurricane that caused more than $29 billion worth of damage and hit Florida with winds at landfall topping 120 mph, reminds FBO managers just how bad things can get. It blew the metal roof off Banyan’s FBO terminal. “That sheet metal flew all over the airport,” recalls Tonko. More than 40 Banyan associates used their personal vehicles to drive onto the closed airport and scour it for debris. The effort paid off. A day after the storm “we were the only airport open in South Florida,” Tonko recalls. “We didn’t have air conditioning in the terminal, but we were pumping fuel like crazy” as seasonal residents flew in to check the damage to their homes.

Curtis George, general manager of Boca Aviation at Boca Raton Airport, arrived new on the job in early 2006. “I got to rebuild two of the hangars destroyed in Wilma,” he recalls. Today, Boca Aviation has 100 based aircraft, 10 hangars with a total of 110,000 sq ft of storage, 42 acres and an 8,000-sq-ft terminal. It will be the general aviation host airport for the October 22 presidential debates at nearby Lynn University.

Boca also follows a hurricane checklist and George cautions that it is “the silly little things that end up kicking you in the butt at the last minute” as a major storm bears down. Those little things include “where are all the hangar door pins?”

George says there is an art to knowing when to “pull the trigger” when it comes to hurricane preparedness. “We communicate with our customers, but try not to unnecessarily scare them away from flying in. These storms are unpredictable, but you want people to know that there are preparations in place. If a storm really is coming, we encourage people to get their aircraft out of harm’s way and we also want to give our staff enough time to get their homes and families prepared so that is not an issue when we need them to come to work.”

“We start talking when it looks like a storm is coming our way,” said George. With Hurricane Isaac, that point was when the storm was still 1,100 miles east of the Windward Islands. “All of the early weather models generally suggested it would come in our direction,” George said.

The checklist comes out and the clock starts ticking at the Stuart Jet Center 96 hours before anticipated landfall, said company president Dan Capen. With the storm out 36 hours, things get busy. Remaining aircraft are inventoried and secured, computers are picked up off the floor, non-essential circuit breakers are pulled, and a volunteer skeleton crew is outfitted with emergency tool kits before sheltering in place inside the shuttered terminal.

“Then we hope for the best.”