Ken Malvey’s TBM 850 arrives at Lumberton, NC with supplies.
Operation Airdrop leverages its grass-roots network of GA pilots to solve “week one” problems after a natural disaster.
A plane, a pilot’s license, fuel and a willingness to drop everything to help people desperately in need. That was the genesis for one of the most effective and responsive relief efforts ever conceived in the face of a natural disaster.
Operation Airdrop is a grass-roots charity co-founded by Doug Jackson and John Clay Wolfe in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the destructive 2017 storm that inundated Houston with 40 inches of rain over four days. They started a Facebook group as a way to organize volunteer owner-pilots to deliver essential supplies to disaster zones in hours, rather than days. As previous disasters have repeatedly demonstrated, government bureaucracy and large-charity machinery tend to react slowly. Operation Airdrop was set up to start delivering supplies within hours.
It didn’t take long for word to spread to pilots around the country, including Kansas City-based owner-pilot Ken Malvey, who owns a TBM 850 single-engine turboprop.
“I was impressed by the way a couple of guys in Texas saw a desperate need to get supplies into areas cut off by flooding and by sheer force of will, they pulled together the logistical and ground support necessary to allow GA pilots to safely and effectively fly supplies into airports in affected areas. I found out about Operation Airdrop too late to help in Houston, but when Hurricane Irma hit Florida not long after Harvey, I reached out to Operation Airdrop and signed up with them to volunteer my services and my plane.”
After flying missions in Florida in the aftermath of Irma, Malvey was impressed by the operation and touched by the very tangible impact that the GA community was able to make. “Operation Airdrop is made up of very driven people who are passionate about helping others, even if they have to move mountains to do so. And they are not burdened by the types of bureaucracy, red tape or authorizations that government relief agencies, and to a lesser extent other very large charitable organizations have to navigate. Speed is critical in natural disaster situations, and these smaller, entrepreneurial, grass-roots organizations are simply able to mobilize and execute extremely quickly,” he said.
In September, Hurricane Florence left a path of devastation as the slow-moving Category 1 hurricane dumped more than 30 inches of rain across the Carolinas. The result was
severe flooding that cut off entire communities from emergency services and much-needed supplies. While FEMA, the Red Cross, and law enforcement mobilized, Operation Airdrop aircraft were already in the air. Volunteer pilots flew 520 missions delivering more than 284,000 pounds of supplies.
At the Raleigh-Durham Airport, TAC Air donated the use of their new FBO building, which served as the logistical and supply hub for the effort. Along with dozens of other owner-pilots, Malvey flew supplies into the communities of Wilmington, Cape Fear, Lumberton, and Laurenberg-Maxton. Over the course of five-and-a-half days, he flew 10 missions totaling 10,000 pounds. “My typical load consisted of bottled water, dried food, canned food, baby formula, diapers, clothes, blankets, tarps, chainsaws, paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, batteries, and anything else you can imagine that would be critical to people in a flooded area cut off from outside supplies,” he said. “I also flew a plane-load of chef-prepared hot meals into Laurenberg-Maxton one night.”
For Malvey, the TBM 850 was the perfect platform for the mission. “In about 10 minutes and without any tools, I can remove the four cabin seats and the carpeting. For a six-seat, single-engine turboprop known more for its speed and comfort, the TBM becomes a surprisingly effective cargo hauler. In this configuration, my TBM has a useful load in excess of 4,000 pounds. Given the relatively short legs from Raleigh Durham to the impacted areas, that translated to more than 1,200 pounds of cargo capacity with my wife and I on board and sufficient fuel for the round trip plus comfortable 1-hour reserves.”
When asked why he felt it was important for him to participate in Operation Airdrop, Malvey said, “We all have a responsibility to help out those in need in whatever ways we are each best able. I love to fly; it’s a passion of mine. And I’m blessed to have the resources to be able to own and fly my own plane. Anytime I can do something I love while helping out others in need, well, that’s a win-win.
“And, aside from just being the right thing to do, I think our willingness and ability to help in this way does have a meaningful impact on public impressions of general aviation and of the importance of their local municipal airport during natural disasters. I don’t think we’ll see any city councils in towns along the Carolina coast voting to close their local airport for at least a generation.”
In today’s cultural and political climate, the news and social media are filled with divisiveness and ugliness. However, Malvey said his participation in the relief efforts in the Carolinas reminded him of the good in people. “It’s amazing how in times of calamity strangers of all different races, religions, colors, and political preference can come together with a singular, united determination to help complete strangers. It’s awe-inspiring and extraordinarily uplifting. And, for those of us pilots actually delivering the supplies to those in need, the hugs, thank-yous, and sometimes tears are priceless.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than giving hope to the hopeless.”
For more information on Operation Airdrop and how you can help, find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/operationairdrop/ or visit: www.operation-airdrop.com