On September 1, Category 5 Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. And then, as the world watched with increasing dismay, it stalled for more than 24 hours over Elbow Cay and Grand Bahama. Dorian broke the type of records you don’t want to be broken – including becoming the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Bahamas – producing billions of dollars in damage, displacing thousands of people, and causing at least 50 fatalities.
Once the storm finally weakened and migrated north, both military and civilian aircraft quickly inundated the area in search, rescue and relief efforts. Though essential, the influx of airplanes created a potential safety issue and a TFR was issued by the Bahamian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to control traffic.
Despite the proximity of the Bahamas to the United States, the logistics for international GA relief flights posed more challenges for pilots than recent domestic hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Michael – not to mention the devastating extent of damage to the Bahamian airports and aviation infrastructure.
From afar, I watched updates through my social media feeds as GA organizations like AOPA and NBAA joined the relief effort, spreading the most up-to-date flight information. Florida-based manufacturer Piper Aircraft, originally in Hurricane Dorian’s projected path, also stepped in to help.
“It was like the Wild West at first as airplanes saturated the area,” said Jackie Carlon, senior marketing director at Piper Aircraft. “We let it stabilize for a few days and started making calls to neighboring organizations and our MMOPA owners group. One of the members is connected to the Bahamas minister of public health, and we learned the greatest need was medical supplies.”
Within two days of Piper releasing a notice for supplies to employees and the local community, Carlon said items poured in: medicines, gauze, exam gloves, sanitizer, bandages, oxygen masks, and so on. Some employees purchased and donated items immediately upon receiving their paycheck. Between the local hospitals and its workforce, the Piper team quickly had enough supplies to load up an M350 for its first mission to Freeport. By this time, pilots were required to file for permission to fly into the area.
“We landed and there were tons of airplanes but little security,” said Carlon. “We just texted our contact directly so they knew which airplane to drive up to for the supplies. But each trip, the measures got more involved and more detailed.”
Piper ultimately conducted three flights, then sent all of the remaining heavier supplies onboard a barge. Following their third landing in Freeport, the minister of public health personally picked up Carlon and pilot Dan Lewis to meet people at the hospital – or what was formally a hospital.
“The hospital is fundamentally closed. Floodwater contaminated the building; crabs were literally crawling past us down the hallways,” said Carlon. “When you see the magnitude of the devastation, you wonder if you are really doing enough. But the Bahamian people are perpetually optimistic, and it was amazing to see the immediate resiliency to rebuild and get back on track.”
While the journey to recovery will be an arduous one, the leaders of the Bahamas are strongly encouraging pilots and tourists to keep their travel plans. With tourism as its top-earning industry, those dollars will be essential to the rebuild – and of the 16 most-visited islands, 14 are open and unaffected by the hurricane. To assist your potential travel plans, you can find detailed instructions and tips on flying to the Bahamas on page 18, provided by Caribbean Sky Tours. Also, our own Rich Pickett writes of his experience flying Bahamas relief missions on page 26.
I commend all of you who assisted in the relief effort in some way. It is situations like Hurricane Dorian where the GA industry publicly showcases its heart, and maybe it is just me, but that heart appears to continually grow larger and more visible.