Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Private pilots take key role in bringing supplies to Harvey victims



GEORGETOWN, Texas – Jim Rice could have spent his Labor Day weekend visiting family in San Antonio or flying off to a remote beach.

Instead, on Sunday, he loaded up his four-seat, single-engine Mooney prop plane with diapers, bottled water, Gatorade, toilet paper, dog food and boxes of Girl Scout cookies and flew it 280 miles to Orange, Texas, which is still recovering from the devastating floods brought on by Tropical Storm Harvey.

It was Rice's ninth flight in and out of flood-ravaged areas in three days.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Rice, 48, a NASA engineer who’s been flying small planes in his spare time for 25 years. “I want to help the people (who) can’t help themselves right now.”

Rice is part of a small army of citizen pilots and private plane owners who are taking a key role in the massive effort of getting supplies into Houston, Orange, Beaumont and other flood-damaged areas where roads are still impassable.

The U.S. military and groups such as the Red Cross also get supplies and workers into areas cut off from the rest of the world by Harvey’s record-breaking floods. But the private pilots and aircraft aficionados have been able to mobilize quicker than the government or NGOs and often beat the military to disaster areas with much-needed supplies, organizers and local officials in the impacted areas said.




Since Friday, the Cessnas, Pilatus, Mooneys and Falcon aircraft have been lifting off from Georgetown Municipal Airport, about 30 miles north of Austin, and flying supplies into the worst-hit areas, said René Banglesdorf, chief executive of Charlie Bravo Aviation, which buys and sells corporate planes, and who is coordinating the effort.

The effort is part of volunteer Sky Hope Network, a group that sends aviators to disaster zones. As of Sunday morning, they had dispatched about 40 planes from Georgetown and another 30 from other parts of the country, she said. The private aviators have donated more than $1 million in fuel, maintenance and pilot time, she said.

Though the military could drop more supplies in a single shipment aboard a C-130 than the smaller planes could bring in an entire afternoon, the private pilots often get to disaster zones quicker, Banglesdorf said. Unlike the military, where commands run through a bureaucracy, she could mobilize willing pilots into small airports within disaster zones within hours, she said. 

On Saturday, the group ran 27 missions into Beaumont with cases of bottled water when that embattled city lost drinkable water. “We’re snipers instead of bomber planes,” she said.

With large swaths of his county cut off from the rest of Texas by strangling floods, Orange County Commissioner John Gothia watched in awe on Friday as Cessna after Cessna landed at the small Orange County Airport in West Orange. The small planes got there well before the military did and dropped off much-needed cases of water, food and medicine, he said. They haven’t stopped coming since.

“It’s huge,” Gothia said. “We wouldn’t have been able to respond as fast without them.”

On Sunday, teams of the Texas National Guard, Red Cross workers and volunteers worked steadily to offload supplies from the planes and stack them onto pallets inside the airport’s only hangar. Later National Guard or other trucks take the supplies to one of four distribution centers around town.   

"It's been amazing," said Glynis Gothia, John Gothia's wife who was helping to inventory all the supplies. "It's been non-stop small planes from all over the place."

Eric Wood, 38, a corporate pilot from Georgetown, learned from a friend at around 3 p.m. Saturday that Beaumont was running low on diabetic supplies. After a few phone calls, Wood had secured a plane — a Beechcraft Super King Air 200 turboprop — and the medicine and flown it down to Beaumont.

“We put it all together in two or three hours,” said Wood, who was delivering supplies again to Orange on Sunday. “We got the plane fueled and loaded and we were off.”

Later on Sunday, Jerry Simon, a Houston investment banker, landed his Cessna Citation CJ1 jet aircraft at Orange County Airport. Inside was a 1,000-pound load that included bananas, sandwiches, water and diapers. Simon usually ferries cancer patients to treatment centers aboard his jet through a volunteer group called Angel Flight. When the opportunity arose to carry supplies to flood victims, he snatched it.

“It’s using this incredible asset for doing something good,” Simon said. “It’s pretty special.”

Original article can be found here ➤ https://www.usatoday.com

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