A Time of Need

Business Jet Traveler » April 2010
Nan Kramer, a Honeywell flight attendant, surveys the devastation in Port-au-
Thursday, April 1, 2010 - 5:00am

Two massive earthquakes in two months. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced. The responses to the twin tragedies in Haiti and Chile were unprecedented from a humanitarian-aid perspective, including the first-ever large-scale coordinated effort to bring supplies directly to earthquake survivors aboard business jets. The world has never seen anything quite like it.  

I flew to Haiti on January 18-less than a week after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck that country's capital, Port-au-Prince-aboard a Honeywell corporate Gulfstream carrying aid workers and medical supplies. Our flight to Haiti was one of more than 700 by private airplanes bringing in help in the days and weeks after the island nation's strongest earthquake in more than 200 years.

The flights by corporations and private individuals started as soon as people realized how serious a humanitarian crisis the earthquake in Haiti was. So many airplanes were arriving at Port-au-Prince's Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in the days after the quake that U.S. military controllers started parking them on the grass beside the runway because the ramps were full. Other times aircraft were turned away.

The National Business Aviation Association helped pilots arrange slot reservations permitting them to land in Port-au-Prince, using the lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Business jet operators had tried to lend assistance after the levees failed in New Orleans, but they were met with resistance because the formal process to do so did not yet exist. Now, thanks to the NBAA's efforts since Katrina, it does.

Another group that deserves tremendous credit for helping private aircraft reach Haiti is CARE, which stands for Corporate Aircraft Responding to Emergencies. The group was formed in 2005, right after Katrina, when it coordinated about 100 flights in support of the relief efforts along the Gulf Coast. A CARE spokeswoman said the organization's members have been responsible for transporting more than 1.2 million pounds of supplies and 3,400 people in and out of Haiti since the earthquake.

Stories about corporate airplanes carrying aid into Haiti and the injured back out abound. CARE worked with Tradewind Aviation, a Connecticut-based charter operator, to set up a landing strip on a road in Haiti's Léogâne region, where the company's Cessna Caravan turboprop single has landed more than 150 times in the months since the quake. Not only did the airplane bring in food, water and medical supplies, but the pilots also let local officials siphon fuel for generators, including the one at the hospital in Léogâne.

Many business jet operators arranged transport of critically injured survivors out of Haiti. One such flight carried a young Haitian girl named Yadissa, who had been struck by a bus during one of the many aftershocks to hit Port-au-Prince. A jet was on the ground less than 24 hours later to transport the girl to a Florida hospital for treatment. She was to return home on March 27 to see her parents for the first time since. 

Business jet maker Dassault Falcon donated use of its Falcon 900EX sales demonstrator to the relief effort, and other manufacturers and industry suppliers donated airplanes and money. Bombardier gave more than $1 million, plus the use of aircraft, and Honeywell pledged a similar amount for rebuilding efforts in Haiti and made three flights to Port-au-Prince, including the one I was on. Gulfstream parent company General Dynamics made a "significant" (but undisclosed) donation to Project Hope, a medical relief charity sending doctors and supplies to Haiti. L-3 Avionics Systems donated the use of its King Air for eight flights to the country.

These are just some examples of the outpouring of support in the business aviation community after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Space constraints do not allow a complete listing, but other stories are included in this issue.

The human toll wrought by the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile would be hard to fathom if the world hadn't so recently confronted strikingly similar natural disasters. There was the earthquake in Sichuan, China, in 2008 in which 70,000 died. The one that hit northern Pakistan in 2005 killed 79,000. Before that, the 2004 Asian tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean claimed nearly 230,000 lives.

From history's lesson book we know there will be others. Each new catastrophe is a reminder of life's fragility-and also of the compassion that humans are willing to show for each other in a time of need.

The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12 was especially devastating. Although the magnitude-8.8 quake in Chile was one of the strongest ever recorded, its death toll paled in comparison with what happened in and around the ruined Haitian capital, where the government estimates that more than 217,000 people died.

Geophysicists calculate that the earthquake in Chile on February 27 was 250 to 300 times stronger than the Haitian quake, yet fewer than 1,000 deaths were reported in the weeks after the Chilean temblor. Scientists think they know why. For one thing, the epicenter of the Haitian quake was only a few miles from Port-au-Prince, while the rupture in Chile was centered offshore about 70 miles from the nearest city, Concepción. Building construction in Chile is also generally much better than in Haiti, and even the earthquakes themselves were different geologically.

Another reason, of course, is poverty. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The destitute in Port-au-Prince faced deplorable conditions. They lived in ramshackle slum villages, inside shoddy structures (you wouldn't call them homes) that were falling apart even before a sudden release of tectonic stress in the earth's crust shook the city for 40 terrible seconds on that day.

On the descent for landing in Port-au-Prince on January 18, the scene was about what I'd expected to find after seeing the TV news reports-especially considering that the earthquake struck so near to a city where building codes simply don't exist. From the jump seat in the cockpit of the Gulfstream, I spotted entire neighborhoods that had pancaked into the dust. Gray smoke rose in plumes from fires that had burned for days. Near the main roads leading away from the airport, survivors huddled in makeshift encampments or begged for help from passing vehicles.

I was on the ground in Haiti for only 28 minutes, just long enough to offload our supplies onto waiting UN trucks and say goodbye to the aid workers staying behind. Among them was Maxo Luma, a Haitian native and doctor now living in Vancouver whose sister and another relative were killed in the quake. Before heading to his post at a triage center in the heart of the city, he said he planned to visit his family to check on them and also to learn the fate of friends and former patients. "I'm bracing for bad news," he told me.

Such was undoubtedly a common refrain for millions living in Haiti and Chile, as well as for those with relatives or friends in either country. The NBAA and CARE haven't mobilized for the Chile quake the way they did in Haiti, but that's simply because the Chilean government has not asked for help as the Haitian government did. The NBAA has coordinated with its Latin American counterpart to arrange flights and Chilean and Brazilian airlines are pitching in, but so far the requests for such assistance from private aircraft have been few.

Of course, now that business aviation organizations and aircraft operators have gained experience from disasters like the Haitian quake and Katrina, they will be ready to respond the next time they are needed.

Let's hope it's not anytime soon.

First Help Arrives Aboard Falcon 7X

The first business jet to arrive bearing help for the residents of Port-au-Prince came not from the U.S. but all the way from Switzerland.

Before the 7.0 tremor that shattered the Haitian capital and killed more than 200,000 people, Zurich-based charter provider Jet-Link AG had contracted to send its new Dassault Falcon 7X to pick up passengers in Saint Lucia for a January 14 flight back to Switzerland. While watching the late-night news and the first reports of the destruction on January 12, Roland Kalmus, Jet-Link's director of ground operations and sales, realized that he had an empty airplane about to head to the Caribbean. Early the next morning, he contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and offered the flight for the cost of the direct operating expenses of the aircraft. The 7X left for Haiti before dawn the next day carrying Red Cross medical and logistical personnel.

After a refueling stop in Nassau (due to the unavailability of jet fuel at damaged Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport), the trijet was forced to circle for three hours before receiving permission to land in Port-au-Prince by the U.S. military (which had been asked by the Haitian government to assume control of the airport). That permission came with a caveat: "The U.S. military said, 'We have so many aircraft that want to come into Port-au-Prince that you have three minutes for a turnaround,'" recalled Kalmus. "We went down, dropped off our passengers, dropped off the luggage, closed the door, turned around and left." -Curt Epstein

One Man's Relief Effort

While many people pledged the use of their business jets in the Haiti relief effort, few actually accompanied those jets to the stricken Caribbean nation. One who did-just three days after the earthquake there-was Jeremy Johnson, founder and president of online commerce facilitator Elite Debit. "As soon as we got there, we felt the enormity of the situation and the unbelievable pain," said the 34-year-old entrepreneur, who arrived in his Cessna Citation X with a team of employees, friends and volunteer doctors.

To help deliver supplies, Johnson had his Eurocopter EC130 ferried from Santa Monica, Calif., to Santo Domingo. After he arrived in Haiti, moreover, he purchased a pair of low-hour Robinson R44 helicopters.

This was not Johnson's first attempt to help in a humanitarian crisis. He had flown his helicopter on search missions for missing hikers and during floods near his home in southern Utah. Johnson had also tried to assist with relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but authorities forbade him from operating in the region due to fuel concerns. "As soon as the Haiti thing seemed like it was shaping up to be a similar type of catastrophe, there was no hesitation," he said.

Johnson and his crew spent the first night of their trip in a jail in the town of Jimani in the Dominican Republic on the Haitian border, not because of any run-ins with the law, but because it was the best and safest place the local authorities could suggest for them to sleep. Soon, the group had a helicopter base set up on a ball field, along with a small tent city powered by generators. Fuel was delivered in drums on a flatbed truck purchased for that purpose.

Piloted by Scott Rye, Elite Debit's aviation manager, the Citation X flew supply runs and shuttled victims and medical personnel between Haiti, Florida and Santo Domingo. Johnson and his pilot friends, meanwhile, flew the trio of helicopters practically nonstop for 10 days, carrying medical teams, hauling supplies and serving in a medevac capacity for the severely injured.

"The first week was so emotional because people were dying all around us from dumb things like not having food," Johnson said. While the supplies accumulated at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, Johnson's group was distributing whatever it could carry into the countryside. The EC130 with its passenger seats removed became a sort of flying pickup truck--and doubled at night as Johnson's bedroom.

With few organized distribution procedures, the pilots developed simple criteria for where to land with supplies. "Flying over, you can tell the places that are most devastated and you can tell the ones that are getting aid and the ones that aren't," Johnson recalled. "Little tent cities made from sheets and sticks were popping up everywhere, and you know if they have sheets and sticks they weren't getting aid. If they had tents that all looked the same, then obviously some aid agency had reached that group." 

During the first two relief trips, which lasted 11 and four days respectively, Johnson flew his helicopter while Rye logged 40 flights in the Citation X, carrying 254 passengers and delivering more than 25,000 pounds of supplies. Johnson often dispatched Rye and his copilot on shopping trips near the Florida airport to purchase supplies.

Johnson said he was horrified that children were still suffering from untreated injuries weeks after the disaster. "I'm not a guy who gets emotional and cries," he said, "but I cried more in Haiti than I have in my entire life. I loaded two little girls with broken bodies onto my plane. They weren't crying because there were no tears left. Just seeing that and thinking about my own little girls, I lost it, and it happened over and over again." -Curt Epstein

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