General Aviation As A Lifeline During Natural Disaster (Edited)
Written by Sky Terry – As most people on the West Coast of the United States watch the recovery efforts in Texas and Florida following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, in the Pacific Northwest, a group of people are working to prepare for the potential massive Magnitude 8 plus earthquake that scientists predict will last for as much as 3 to 5 minutes. As you can imagine this type of seismic event is going to be catastrophic for the regions infrastructure. Roads, bridges and runways, will all suffer damage that renders them unusable. This dedicated group of volunteers working in Washington State realized that – when an event like a massive earthquake strikes – General Aviation is going to make a difference. In many of the affected areas only light GA aircraft, including seaplanes, will become the sole lifeline to those affected.
As I’ve had the opportunity to see and at times be involved in the general aviation response to both Hurricane Harvey and Irma they have proved solidly without any doubt the lifesaving role that general aviation can play. While the standard resources that respond to these events has been ever present there has also being large scale effort of general aviation and commercial aviation pilots pitching in and providing that continuing supply line of resources and rescue personnel throughout both responses since the beginning.
One example is Aerobridge’s mission to the Florida Keys following Hurricane Irma. Aerobridge is an organization that has been using GA aircraft for disaster response since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Following the massive earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, Aerobridge flew an astonishing 1.4 Million pounds of supplies into Haiti, and evacuated more than 3,800 people. During the response to Hurricane Irma, Aerobridge jumped into action with a carefully planned response. http://www.aerobridge.org/
Irma Mission Manager Eric Whyte described the operation: “We watched Irma very closely. We had a tentative plan we developed prior to the storm reaching FL. Once the storm passed, we set up a base of operations in Lakeland, FL. The first part of the mission was to send a Caravan on amphibious floats down to get first hand intel on the damage. Using this information, we quickly determined the most affected area was actually between Key West and Marathon. While the Military focused their efforts on the larger airports at Key West and Marathon. But in the hardest hit area were two small airstrips that were only accessible by GA aircraft. We made the decision to focus our efforts on that area because there was a need and we were the best tool for the job. Because the airstrips were relatively small and challenging, we selected a small group of aircraft that had the capability of operating safely into those airports. The problem was the airplanes capable of flying into those types of airports are relatively slow. So, we set up a supply chain with the other aircraft to fly into Homestead, FL X51, and set up a supply base there. So, the airplanes going into the disaster area could make multiple short flights in, which maximized the amount we could haul in there.”
Finding supplies was another challenge and to solve this Aerobridge coordinated with a number of land based organizations including the Search and Rescue Foundation. The Search and Rescue Foundation had the supplies but not the lift. Aerobridge had the lift but not the supplies. The groups worked extremely well together. Eric Whyte said, “This effort combined with the additional areas that the Aerobridge pilots are picking up supplies has successfully delivered the equivalent of what a C-17 can drop in”. They have been a Godsend to many. It is this collaborative effort that is occurring all over the East Coast and Gulf that is making a major difference in the recovery efforts and as one individual in Texas indicated, has greatly lessened the body bag count.
These efforts in Florida translate directly to other areas around the world, including the Pacific Northwest. By working with local, state and federal agencies and using the efforts of Aerobridge in Florida during Irma as a positive example of how General Aviation can and should be part of a disaster response plan. All too often the governmental agencies put up TFRs and keep GA out, because of a lack of understanding of the capabilities these aircraft can offer.
As we prepare for our worst-case scenario for the west coast it is good to know areas like Clallam, Jefferson and Island Counties are taking the positive active steps to ensure before we have our event that general aviation is already a planned part of the response. See this Youtube video for information on efforts in the PNW.
The YouTube video below shows an exercise that was made possible with the help of the largest U.S. Commercial float plane operator, Kenmore Air. They opened their main facility to facilitate disaster response planning and lent aircrafts to volunteers from multiple counties across Puget Sound. The Kenmore Fire Department, City of Kenmore officials and many others in joint partnership with WSPA Pilots and SPA, who all worked together to learn how to use seaplanes in saving lives. No patients were flown that day, but a tremendous amount was learned. That has since been used by multiple states to help save lives.
Sky Terry is a Contributing Editor here at Seaplanemagazine.com. He writes on topics concerning the use of Seaplanes and Flying Boats in Emergency & Disaster Relief.