Jim Moore AOPA
GA Flights Help Hurricane Relief Effort
November 6, 2012
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  • By Jim Moore

    General aviation pilots responded to a devastated region in numbers, along with volunteers and donors from communities across the country, making dozens of flights to deliver more than 40,000 thousand pounds of relief supplies by Nov. 5 to distribution centers serving the hardest-hit parts of New York and New Jersey.

    The effort was coordinated through AERObridge, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that handled logistics, carefully matching donations with need. Three airports—Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y.; Robert J. Miller Air Park in Toms River, N.J.; and Eagles Nest in West Creek, N.J., served as the destinations for inbound flights, where volunteer pilots found a hearty welcome.

    Rhode Island pilot Graeme J.W. Smith made four round trips Nov. 4 from Newport State Airport to Republic in his Cessna 150, packed to maximum gross and maximum aft CG, his efforts documented by local television.

    Smith said an email to local businesses and a neighborhood group “went viral,” and the response—a flood of donations from businesses, offices, and individuals—was far beyond what he expected.

    “We were sort of the key that could unlock and facilitate what a lot of people who would like to help and were not sure how,” Smith said. As donations poured in, he began to recruit others to help carry the supplies—including donated winter jackets—to Republic. One load was flown by a man who met Smith at the fuel pump and offered his aircraft on the spot.

    Sixteen aircraft made the trip from Fitchburg Municipal Airport in Massachusetts, hauling supplies that flooded into FCA Flight Center following a series of Facebook posts. Corporate jets also joined the parade, with flights from as far away as California coordinated through AERObridge, according to Marianne Stevenson, the organization’s president.

    “Arizona’s hot right now,” Stevenson said Nov. 5, referring to flight activity—not the weather.

    Pilots who wish to volunteer were advised to contact AERObridge before planning flights, to help ensure the right supplies were matched with the right destination. AERObridge was working closely with other relief organizations to update the list of needs at each location, three airports that became regional distribution hubs covering all of the affected area.

    Nearly a week after Hurricane Sandy became a “superstorm” that claimed dozens of lives and devastated coastal communities in the nation’s most populated region, power outages persisted and shelters were expecting more people to arrive as a new storm was expected to deliver more wind, rain, and snow.

    “We’re looking at I don’t think a very good situation over the next three days,” Stevenson said.

    Charley Valera organized missions flown by the Fitchburg Pilots Association, and also marveled at the speed with which a simple Facebook message yielded a flood of donated supplies, along with volunteers willing to help package, wrap, and weigh packages of supplies for the waiting aircraft. With help from a retired air traffic controller, the organization secured transponder assignments in advance of departing from the nontowered airport for the flight south, one among many examples of ready cooperation from government authorities. Valera had no trouble rounding up willing co-pilots, wanting to ensure that those less familiar with the New York metro area had an extra pair of eyes on board.

    “Everybody wanted to be a part of it,” Valera said.

    The parade of aircraft headed to Long Island included both veterans and novices. Some rented aircraft at their own expense to make the flight, including Krzysztof Borowicz, 18, a relatively new pilot who made the trip solo in a Cessna 152.

    “I am so in awe of this young kid, I got to tell you,” Valera said.

    AERObridge also coordinated some ground shipments, with roads generally open and an abundance of donated supplies. Stevenson said it was not clear how much longer the GA airlift would be needed, though additional flights were planned Nov. 5 and Nov. 6, at least. Smith said he was recruiting pilots able to fly the balance of donations in Newport to Republic on Nov. 9, and anyone able to make the trip from Newport State should email him, first, to coordinate.

    GA flights were not limited to delivering critical supplies: in the days following the storm, the Virginia Volunteer Pilots Group coordinated the efforts of three GA organizations—Pilots for Christ, Mercy Medical Airlift, and Pilots N Paws—to conduct aerial survey missions. Civil Air Patrol chapters also conducted similar flights in light aircraft, from the Mid-Atlantic to New England.

    At Republic, Valera said, the arrivals were welcomed very warmly.

    “We were treated like kings, like airlines,” Valera said, recalling the smiling faces of line crews who quickly emptied the aircraft into waiting carts. Smith said he saw one crewman moved to tears, and noted that the airport staff had been staying at the airport for days, with no fuel to get home in a car, or power at home if they got there.

    “They’ve been sleeping at the FBO for a week,” Smith said. “None of them have been home.”