Part 135 Operator Stages Heroic Hurricane Response

 - October 16, 2015, 11:35 AM
Tropic Ocean Airways used its fleet of Caravans to bring relief supplies to the Bahamas. Photo: Tropic Ocean Airways/Captain Ken White

Shortly after Hurricane Joaquin moved through the Caribbean early last month, Florida-based Part 135 operator Tropic Ocean Airways accepted a booking for a charter flight into the Southern Bahamas region. The company, which has conducted flights in the area since 2011 with its fleet of Caravans, had received some requests for assistance and supplies from local residents and businesses it had dealt with in the past. With little information available in the media about the situation in the Southern islands of the Bahamas, company founder and CEO Robert Ceravolo, loaded up the remaining cargo space on the airplane with some relief goods as well.

“Everybody knows Nassau and Freeport,” Ceravolo said. “Not too many people were talking about what happened because the hurricane missed Nassau.” After the flight landed, Ceravolo received word from his pilots that while Joaquin had skirted the more densely populated areas of the country, the Out Islands such as San Salvador, Rum Cay and Long Island had taken the brunt of the storm, which lingered over the area, razing entire villages down to the foundations.

At that point, Ceravolo, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, decided to take action. “I said, ‘The Bahamas are our second home, that’s where we operate, we know these people well,’ and I thought it was the right thing to do to step up,” he said. “We heard that people were dying, they needed water, they needed food, they needed to get out of places, so we just said, ‘Let’s do it.’” He headed off to his local big-box warehouse and loaded up on urgently needed supplies, which he brought back to the company’s base at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. After several shopping trips he had enough supplies to pack two of the company’s seven Caravans (three on floats, two on wheeled landing gear and two down for maintenance), and set off for Rum Cay.

Coordinated Efforts

The company also decided to deploy one of its staff members, a former U.S. Marines pilot who had been stationed in Japan during the Fukushima tsunami and who subsequently saw his share of relief operations first hand, to serve as the on-the-ground coordinator for its efforts and liaison with the Red Cross. “People heard that we were there so they started reaching out to us,” he told AIN. Eventually, Ceravolo and his company became a vital link between the Bahamian Government and aid organizations. For nearly a week after that first charter flight, Tropic Ocean declined all bookings to dedicate most of its 40 staff members and equipment to the relief effort.

“We used forward-deployed aircraft in the Exumas at George Town, and we ran two or three airplanes back and forth from South Florida,” Ceravolo reported, noting some areas could be reached only by the float-equipped Caravans. “We could deliver supplies to our forward base and then we would put them on the seaplanes and take them out to the areas that really needed them.” One lone revenue flight was an exception, another charter into the devastated area. “I said, ‘I’ll book your flight if you let me put 2,000 pounds of cargo on your trip,’ which they were basically fine with,” said Ceravolo. “Anybody who said they wanted to go elsewhere in the Bahamas, we said no.”

During the week-long effort, Tropic Ocean logged more than 100 flight hours and delivered approximately 50,000 pounds of supplies, nearly half of it donated by Resorts World Bimini, a casino in the hard-hit area, which delivered two heavily laden flatbed trucks to the company’s Fort Lauderdale hangar at the Sheltair FBO, and also loaned the use of two of its own aircraft: another Caravan and a Cessna 206. Other donations came from local churches, schools and individuals with ties to the Bahamas. Recently reborn Eastern Airlines contributed a relief flight on one of its 737s to Exuma International Airport, which delivered approximately 7,000 pounds of supplies.

Financial donations to the relief effort have tallied approximately $30,000, and Tropic Ocean received fuel assistance from its home Sheltair FBO, as well as Odyssey Aviation in Exuma and Jet Aviation in Nassau. That helped offset the company’s expenses in the effort, which have totaled nearly $100,000, not counting lost revenue. Tropic Ocean also evacuated more than 30 locals, among them an elderly couple who had been abandoned and left for dead by their caregivers during the height of the storm. A member of the Palm Beach Fire & Rescue crew deposited on the beach by the charter provider found the couple and escorted them back to the waiting Caravan.

Tropic Ocean began to draw back its efforts and get back to business, as the government and aid agencies stepped up their response, but the company is still organizing the donation of supplies such as water, soap, batteries, toiletries, towels, aspirin and feminine products, as well as financial contributions through its website (www.flytropic.com). While his active role in this crisis is ending, Ceravolo is looking ahead to coordinate future industry response more effectively. “I think it’s important to get some kind of conference together when this all blows over to see who out there is really available to help and come up with an emergency action plan, so if this happens again we can pick up the phone and call four or five people and say ‘Let’s go.’”

Too Close for Comfort

Even though Joaquin did not make landfall in the U.S., the storm contributed to record flooding in the Carolinas as it drifted up the East Coast and eventually out to sea. Described by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as a thousand-year event, Joaquin claimed the lives of nearly 20 people and caused widespread evacuations as floodwaters inundated cities such as Columbia and Charleston. As it has been in the wake of past storms, the Civil Air Patrol was tasked with taking aerial photos of the disaster area using its geotagging-capable cameras. CAP aircrews from North and South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Virginia conducted more than 100 flights and took nearly 4,000 aerial photos, providing emergency responders with the time-critical information needed to prioritize deployment of resources. The flights also marked the CAP’s debut of the Garmin Virb camera. It attaches to wing struts and captures ground images directly below the aircraft. Three of the devices deployed in damage assessment flights allowed officials to make much faster use of the images.