Hurricane Irma: For Most, It Could Have Been Much Worse

 - September 18, 2017, 4:05 PM
With punishing winds of up to 142 mph, Hurricane Irma caused millions of dollars in damage to Naples Municipal Airport when it made landfall. These hangars are owned by Naples Jet Center, one of two FBOs on the field. According to FBO owner Matthew Hagans, the water on the ramp receded a day after this photo was taken.

Scarcely had the country digested the scenes of devastation coming out of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, when another monster storm developed in the Mid-Atlantic. Category 5 Hurricane Irma, packing winds of 185 mph, spun through the Caribbean, wreaking havoc with Barbuda, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands before veering north of Puerto Rico and striking the Turks and Caicos Islands and Cuba en route to the U.S. mainland. Along its path, it turned some tropical paradises into acres of wreckage. The region depends heavily on tourism, which in turn attracts private aviation clients, and its damaged FBOs will no doubt have to endure a downturn as they rebuild along with the shattered tourism infrastructure.

On St. Maarten, like most of the island, Princess Juliana International Airport suffered extensive damage, and as of press time, there was no time frame for the reopening of the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), which houses Signature Flight Support affiliate Arrindell Aviation and one other FBO. The facility had no power or water, and with communications limited to satellite phones, days after the storm Signature had yet to account for all of the location’s employees. Yet, according to company president and COO Maria Sastre, the GAT remains largely intact and suffered mainly water damage. Signature had undertaken cleanup as it worked to stabilize the infrastructure there. Signature is also a commercial servicer at the airport and it was working with the airport authority to see if it could service both airliners and GA aircraft from the GA side of the airport.

St. Thomas was also hard hit, with severe damage to infrastructure. In the aftermath of the Category 5 hurricane, the FAA airlifted a mobile ATC tower to the island’s Cyril E. King International Airport to substitute for the heavily damaged permanent tower, which had controllers managing relief and rescue flights from a tent on the airfield for several days. The tower was operational less than four hours after it arrived on an Air Force C-17.

Nearby sister U.S. Virgin Island St. Croix avoided Irma’s knockout punch. Bohlke International Airways (which itself was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989), the lone FBO at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (STX), immediately became a hub of rescue and relief activity. The FBO supported a flurry of operations from the U.S Air Force, U.S. Navy, Air National Guard, FEMA, Red Cross, Salvation Army and several medevac services such as AeroMD. Country singer Kenny Chesney and entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also sent their private jets to STX filled with relief supplies. Chesney also chartered a helicopter to run mercy missions to his beloved St. John.

Landfall in the U.S.

As the storm approached Florida, most FBO operators urged tenants to relocate their aircraft. According to statistics from aviation data provider FlightAware, in the week leading up to Irma’s landfall on the mainland U.S. there were nearly 6,000 business jet departures from the state. That exodus meant a frantic operations pace at the departure airports, which saw not only tenant aircraft departures but also steady streams of charter aircraft summoned to extricate passengers.

Those FBOs were in some cases understaffed as workers were released to safeguard their homes and families. Fuel providers were largely able to meet the demand right up to the storm, according to many FBOs. At Naples Municipal Airport, September is typically the slowest month of the year, with fuel sales at the airport-owned FBO averaging 9,000 gallons a day. “The day before closing the airport, we sold 40,000 gallons with area residents evacuating,” said airport manager Christopher Rozansky. “It was reminiscent of a typical day during the busier winter months, except we had far less staff and fuel to deal with the demand.”

It was a similar story at most airports across the state. “You would have thought we became the business aviation evacuation center, because for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday [before the storm’s landfall] the number of aircraft that we handled made the Super Bowl look like a picnic,” noted Don Campion, president of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport-based Banyan Air Service. He described his facility’s lobby as filled with hundreds of people awaiting the arrival of charter aircraft from all over the country.

At the other end, airports such as New Jersey’s Teterboro saw an influx of arrivals. On the Wednesday before Irma’s landfall, 80 aircraft arrived at the Atlantic Aviation facility from Florida alone, according to Barbara Briccola, the company’s regional sales manager for the Northeast.

As the storm approached, the Florida Keys were heavily hit, and Signature evacuated staff from its FBO at Key West International Airport for the duration of the storm. The area reported widespread devastation, and while the FBO’s terminal survived in good shape, the hangar suffered damage. Within a week of Irma’s passing, the location was operating on generator power, under limited hours because of a curfew, with the fuel supply prioritized for relief and rescue operations. Sastre noted the company established a supplemental operation at Miami Executive Airport to process Key West’s transactions, allowing the limited staff there to concentrate on the operation activities.

More than a week later, the Signature location at Palm Beach County Glades Airport near Pahokee, remained closed because of power problems. Tampa International Airport and the Signature facility there were back online by the Tuesday after the storm. The FBO had been buffeted by strong wind and heavy rain, shredding fabric doors on hangars, allowing water within, and blowing away the airside arrivals canopy.

Of the 34 Signature faciities in the path of the storm, most were up and running within days—and in some cases hours—after Irma passed. Sastre credits the company’s veteran staff for the quick response. “We have experienced leadership in our organization, many of whom have weathered tough storms,” she told AIN. “This was of a different magnitude. We have never experienced the scale of what we experienced, with Irma, across as many bases. Obviously this was record setting in the FBO industry.”

Westward Turn

Indeed, the storm, at one point the size of France, virtually blanketed the entire state and most forecasters did not anticipate its last-minute deviation to Florida’s Gulf side.

“We had been planning for it for a week, and watching it closely out in the Caribbean,” noted Kurt Schmidt, Atlantic Aviation’s vice president of southeast regional operations. “The one thing that did surprise us as it approached the Florida peninsula, it began to shift to the west. We were concerned about that because it put almost the entire state on the more powerful side of the storm.”

That deviation spurred some changes in the finely tuned plans the service providers made. “Early on in the storm, when we believed Fort Lauderdale would be the first one affected, and heavily, we did not even put a skeleton crew there because we did not want to put any of our staff in harm’s way,” said Warren Kroppel, COO of Sheltair, which has 11 locations in the state and handled 2,500 hurricane-related operations in the hours before and after the hurricane. “As the storm shifted west, we were able to get some skeleton staff in there and open up as soon as the airport itself opened.”

For Banyan, that deviation was heaven-sent. The sprawling facility, which has 1 million sq ft of hangar space, suffered little damage. According to Campion, every aircraft that could fly did so, yet some of his hangars were packed with small aircraft, such as those from local flight schools, which could not find enough pilots to ferry them to safer areas. All those aircraft survived unscathed in hangars that had their doors pinned shut with half-inch steel rods, and the FBO did not even lose power during the storm.

On the other side of the state, at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, Vincent Wolanin, chairman and CEO of PrivateSky Aviation, the lone FBO there, rode out the storm along with staffers and their families, and even cars, in the facility’s Stage 5 concrete and steel rebar structure, which is rated to withstand wind of 180 mph. “We were baking apple pies in the kitchen, had ice cream for the families and staff, and had movies streaming for the children, and games and all that stuff,” Wolanin explained to AIN, adding that the situation wasn’t quite as carefree as he described. “Don’t get me wrong, when you get a hurricane like this, it sounds like a locomotive coming through the place.”

While many aircraft owners chose to evacuate their aircraft from the state,16 tenant airplanes, among them a G550 and GIV, were safely sheltered in place, Wolanin reported. Power remained on at the facility until many hours after Irma passed overhead, when it was shut off, possibly for repairs to the local power grid. Immediately, the FBO’s massive generator fired up and kept the location fully powered until main electricity was restored on Tuesday, when the facility handled 150 inbound flights as anxious homeowners returned to assess the damage. On Thursday, the location hosted Air Force One and its attendant C-17 transports, as the President briefly toured the area.

The city of Naples was the epicenter where Irma came ashore as a Category 3 hurricane. At Naples Municipal Airport, gusts of up to 142 mph were clocked, according to Rozansky, causing million of dollars in damage to the site. The airport suffered flooding and the roof of the fire station was peeled off. The two FBOs—privately owned Naples Jet Center and the Naples Airport Authority’s own facility—suffered damage. At least six hangars were seriously damaged or completely destroyed. According to airport director of operations Ryan Frost, who spent the night of the storm holed up in the second floor of the airport’s FBO; he could feel the concrete building, rated to 140 mph, shake at the height of Irma’s fury. The glass sliding doors in the lobby popped open, and a tree crashed on the generator, at the time the only source of power to the building.

At the Naples Jet Center across the field, cloth doors failed on empty hangars four and five, according to owner Matthew Hagans, allowing the wind to blow out one of the side walls. Despite insurance he is expecting a big bill for the repairs. “The way insurance works on these things, you have a 5-percent deductible on a named storm,” he explained to AIN. “It’s a $4 million hangar, so I’ve got a $200,000 deductible.” Still, he considers himself lucky when weighing the possibilities. “I can fix all this stuff,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is none of my employees was hurt.” He added that several aircraft, which were in deep maintenance at the facility at the time of the storm and unable to fly out, were safe in undamaged hangars, but at press time with limited generator power and no fresh water, Hagans was uncertain when he would be able to resume operations. Reports from Florida Power and Light said repairs could take two weeks.

At many locations, clean-up and return to operational status was also affected by the absence of staff. While some evacuated the state, others were home dealing with their own safety and that of their families. In areas, flooding prevented staffers from swiftly travelling to the FBOs, while other cities imposed curfews immediately after the storm. “We all have damage and issues at home to deal withthe logistics of helping family members return and even a couple who are still waiting to hear from a loved one,” stated Rozansky, “but we are fortunate to have such a group of dedicated professionals working for the Naples Airport Authority.”

The lack of running water posed one specific problem for the airport. Per Natca rules, a working restroom is required for air traffic controllers to occupy the facility, and the portable facilities ordered by the airport ahead of the storm never arrived. In desperation, the airport workers located a Port-o-let that had been blown into the woods from a construction site on the field. The airport fire department hosed it down and refilled it with the proper liquid, allowing the controllers to return to the lightly damaged tower. The airport resumed PPR operations without fuel service at the end of the week, and began more normal activities the following Monday, more than a week after Irma hit.

Fortunately, the storm quickly lost steam after landfall, and while cities to the north of the state such as St. Augustine and Jacksonville saw widespread flooding, their airports were relatively unharmed. FBOs as far away as Savannah were affected by the rain, but by Wednesday following the hurricane, most of the major airports had returned to full or limited operations; the ones hit hardest were being used to support relief and rescue operations.

Bizav Mobilizes

Almost immediately after the storm passed, members of the business aviation industry swung into relief mode. David Zara, one of the founders of San Juan-based charter and scheduled service provider Tradewind Aviation and the current operator of Teterboro Airport-based Part 135 management company One Air, immediately began to collect supplies when it became clear that the monster storm would cripple Caribbean islands. He first persuaded a friend to loan him a Falcon 2000 and crew for a relief flight into San Juan just days after the storm. He contacted his former Tradewind colleagues, who agreed to ferry the supplies on their PC-12s. He then contacted another friend, Dassault Falcon CEO John Rosanvallon, who agreed to lend him a Falcon 900 and crew used by the company's rapid response parts delivery service. Zara believes he delivered 50,000 pounds of supplies: chainsaws, generators, tarps, gloves and workboots.

In lightly affected San Juan, local individuals and charities purchased additional supplies that were delivered to the Tradewind hangar at Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, and loaded onto the turboprop singles. Tradewind president Eric Zipkin believes that with the two aircraft his company flew 75 segments in the week after the storm, carrying supplies to islands and returning with evacuees. As things began to settle, the company resumed scheduled service and began to carry in recovery workers such as engineers and insurance adjustors, as well as family members looking to aid loved ones. Zipkin expected the arrival of Hurricane Maria, which had Puerto Rico squarely in its sights, would force him this time to evacuate the airplanes from the island. During Irma the company's airplanes rode out the storm in their San Juan hangar.

From across the Atlantic, Airbus dispatched an A350 XWB test aircraft carrying 84 medical personnel and loaded with 30 tons of supplies such as water purifiers, solar lamps, beds, mosquito netting and generators supplied by the Airbus Foundation and the French Red Cross to Guadeloupe, for distribution to affected islands such as St. Martin and St. Barthélemy.

Back in the U.S., aviation-based disaster support organization Aerobridge began an airlift of needed supplies into the Florida Keys, Jacksonville and Fort Myers. The privately donated goods are being stored in warehouses near Ocala International Airport and loaded on aircraft there. Aerobridge is staging the relief flights, using a fleet of volunteered aircraft including a Cessna CJ3 and a PC-12, out of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The use of private aircraft allowed the organization to deliver the supplies swiftly by avoiding the region’s highly congested roads and highways.