Bahamas relief flights highlight GA's humanitarian role

 - September 17, 2019, 2:14 PM

In what is becoming an unfortunately all-too-frequent drill, business and general aviation operators were ready to assist the shattered islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco in the Northern Bahamas as soon as it was safe to do so in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, NBAA activated HERO, its humanitarian emergency response operator program, a database of business aircraft operators who have pledged their aid to transport emergency supplies and other needs. Their basic contact information was presented to the organizations that were beginning to coordinate and mobilize the relief efforts. Likewise, business aviation emergency response group AERObridge alerted its membership, as industry organizations in Florida and beyond began establishing supply donation drop points at local airports.

But as the storm moved on, the scores of pilots wishing to conduct relief flights—either carrying vitally-needed supplies or aid workers—faced little to no solid information about what airports were available, the permission policies from the Bahamian Civil Aviation Authority and National Emergency Management Agency, and air traffic control in the chaotic skies around the islands.

Mark Zee, founder of International OpsGroup, started a page on Facebook, which served as a clearinghouse for any operational information gleaned by pilots, regarding any announced governmental procedures and protocols, as well offering as twice-daily reports on the status of the affected airports in Freeport, Treasure Cay, Marsh Harbour, and Sandy Point, as well as Nassau, which served as a strategic coordination point for aircraft delivering supplies, and carrying evacuees fleeing the devastation on the Northern Islands. The Odyssey Aviation FBO at Lynden Pindling International Airport was designated as a base of operations by the Bahamian government and its National Emergency Management Agency, complete with a makeshift triage center to assist arriving evacuees needing immediate medical attention, food, or water. It processed more than 2,000 individuals displaced by the storm.

West End Airport is a 6,000-foot non-towered concrete strip located at the far northwestern tip of Grand Bahama Island, with no services even in the best of times. But the airport became a lifeline for GA aircraft to provide relief and evacuation to that side of the island, which was connected by a single causeway. Among the scores of aircraft assisting in the efforts were four owned by Germany-based Dieter Morszeck Foundation, a charitable organization set up by the industrialist, initially to provide airborne medical assistance in Brazil. At the urging of German-born Sven Lepschy, CEO of WACO Aircraft, who also serves as one of the foundation’s pilots, the foundation dispatched a pair of its Quest Kodiak turboprop singles (one on floats), a float-equipped Pilatus PC-6, and a Cessna 206. “Our small airplanes can reach even the outermost islands in the Northeastern corner of the Bahamas,” said Lepschy. “Many people there have lost everything. Their houses are destroyed, and they are currently living under dreadful sanitary conditions.” He noted the foundation transported more than 140 people and carried greater than 70 tons of cargo with its 45 flights.

By September 10, aviation fuel was once again available at Freeport International, and those coordinating general aviation activities there began to stand down as governmental and international aid organizations ramped up their activities.

AERObridge announced that it ceased its Dorian disaster response airlift by the end of the following day.

“Our purpose in creating a supply chain to include donations, transportation, and distribution has been fulfilled,” said Marianne Stevenson, the group’s founder and president. “Government agencies are now shipping supplies and providing aid on a large scale.”

“We had 325 pilots flying multiple sorties,” Stevenson told AIN, adding they transported 175 passengers and carried more than half-million pounds of supplies. “We created a complete supply chain of donations with long-time partner Crossroads in Ocala, as well as general donations in Fort Myers, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Key West. With our volunteer pilots, we transported them to Treasure Cay, Marsh Harbor, Freeport, and West End.”

According to aviation data provider FlightAware, between Sept. 2 and Sept. 11 there were 1,835 general aviation flights into Nassau, and the affected airports.

AIN senior editor Curt Epstein visited the Bahamas just weeks before Dorian hit. In the wake of the storm's devastation, not knowing how the people who hosted him had fared during the storm, he wrote the following blog:

Little more than two weeks ago, I was in the Bahamas, ill-fated Grand Bahama Island specifically. I was a guest of the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, on a trip to demonstrate how that island, which had lackluster tourism numbers compared to its sisters, had worked to rebound from 2016’s direct hit by Hurricane Matthew. Last year, the Bahamas set tourism records, attracting more than 6.6 million visitors, and was on a pace to exceed that amount.

That is until September 1, when Hurricane Dorian arrived. The monster storm, ferocious even by Category 5 standards, stalled and sat on top of the chain’s major northernmost islands, Grand Bahama and Abaco, wreaking havoc. According to satellite imagery, by the second day of the storm, more than 60 percent of Grand Bahama was under water. Online and television images show structures at Freeport International Airport in shambles, with the shredded carcasses of light aircraft unable to flee Dorian’s wrath, strewn like playthings broken by gigantic unruly children.

My visit coincided with a meeting of the Bahamas Aviation Ambassadors, a group of GA pilots from the U.S. who flew to the area so frequently and encouraged their friends to fly there in train with them so often, that the government decided to formalize the arrangement and establish the ambassador program. Through them, the Ministry (which just recently had the “and aviation” part added to its title) promotes the islands to general aviation pilots, hosting events such as the one I was invited to, to educate them about island destinations.

If a pilot was interested in flying to the Bahamas but uncomfortable about operating alone over open water, they could contact one of the ambassadors who would offer to escort them, and maintain radio contact with them during the trip, from takeoff (usually from Banyan Air Service in Fort Lauderdale) to landing. The ambassadors also lead scheduled groups of GA aircraft to the islands after major aviation gatherings such as EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and Sun ’n‘ Fun. Some of the ambassadors have served that role for more than 20 years, and were flying relief missions to the islands after Dorian.

One of them with me on that trip was Terry Carbonell, international director of women’s pilot organization The Ninety-Nines, who has flown to the Bahamas dozens of times. “These people are our friends,” she told me as the reports of Dorian’s devastation there continued to filter out. “When I saw 185 mph hit the islands, and knowing that our friends are there, and people that we love, it's heartwrenching. To see how everybody is suffering and we had such a good time there, such a short time ago, it just doesn’t seem like it could really happen.”

I know exactly what she means, for it is hard to juxtapose those memories of an island paradise with the harsh realities of today.

During our trip, our accommodations were at the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach, a resort located, as its name would suggest, right on the beach. I’m told it was situated on the leeward side of the storm and hope that it received some measure of protection from that. But the island's power grid was most likely destroyed, along with other vital infrastructure, and unlike similar situations here in the U.S., there’s no line of repair trucks waiting to come in.

Other stops on our tour included West End Airport, a quiet 6,000-foot strip on the other side of the island with no tower or fuel. Inbound aircraft simply notify the Old Bahama Bay Resort and Marina (which oversees the airfield) with their arrival time and a van with customs officials will meet them.

We toured (and sampled) the Sands Brewery, a modern facility that produces several varieties of beer (including passionfruit and grapefruit-flavored radlers) for the local community only, no export. But with likely power or water outages, let alone storm damage to the facility itself, those taps could run dry. Another destination was the Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO), a nine-acre lagoon which is home to a group of dolphins, and hosts encounter sessions with these magnificent animals. One of only a handful of locations that allows the dolphins access to open ocean, I remember in chilling retrospect the then-innocent question asked by one of my companions. “What happens to the dolphins during a hurricane?” “They know better than us when one is coming, and head out to sea,” was the reply.

One of the trip’s highlights was observing the summer-ending Junkanoo celebration where huge groups of elaborately costumed dancers and musicians marched in competition, all to the beat of drums fashioned from oil drums, and raucous whistles. It was Mardi Gras in a microcosm, and while most of the musical instruments looked well-worn, they were surely family treasures.

While there, I met with airport executives to discuss the airport-owned FBO and general aviation handling operation. The 11,000-sq-ft GA terminal was a recent addition, which was well received by its customers. One Challenger 350 owner who arrived during my visit described how the GA facilities used to be contained in a trailer. “Now its as good as any FBO in the Caribbean,” he told me. I have no idea if or in what condition it survived the storm.

I’ve attempted to reach my contacts there, but have had no reply as of yet. Even if they are able to read my emails or receive my voicemails, I can imagine that getting back to me is either at, or very near the bottom, of their list of priorities, somewhere below finding clean water, food, and shelter for themselves and their families. I wish them and all the Bahamians the best and hope that they will recover their islands as they have done in the past. For those pilots flying relief missions, I salute you.