Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tim Stevens: Pilot provides volunteer support to beloved Keys

LAKELAND — During his 24 years in the Air Force, Tim Stevens often flew humanitarian missions to such places as Bosnia, Rwanda and Haiti.

Since retiring in 2012, the Lakeland resident has regularly flown his own plane to Key West, ferrying friends in his Cessna 210 Turbo for weekend trips.

When Stevens learned about the ruination the Florida Keys incurred from Hurricane Irma, he immediately thought of blending his recent avocation with his military background. Since Sept. 13, Stevens has been making frequent flights to the Keys, carrying people and delivering supplies.

“This is what I did on active duty in the Air Force — humanitarian missions,” Stevens said Wednesday, sitting in an office just off the main runway at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. “So to me, this is second nature. This is what I do.”

Stevens, 53, was scheduled to fly out Thursday on his latest run, but that mission was pushed back a day as he awaited the delivery of more supplies.

A friend, Cindy Nettles of Lakeland, arrived Wednesday afternoon at the office of Sheltair to give Stevens a box of first-aid kits. Stevens said he expected to take 12 cases of kits, intended for relief workers who might sustain cuts or other injuries while toiling in remote areas.

Stevens, a 1982 graduate of Lakeland High School, said his desire to be a pilot arose when he was in fourth grade. While a student at the University of South Florida, he began taking flight lessons in 1984.

Upon graduating from USF, he entered the Air Force as a 2nd Lt. He trained at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, and then spent five years at Charleston (S.C.) Air Force Base, flying C-141 cargo planes.

He then served for two years as an instructor pilot in Del Rio, Texas, and spent the last years of his Air Force career flying C-17 transport aircraft out of Charleston. He retired as a major.

Stevens bought his 1978 model Cessna in Seattle in 2001, flying it back to Lakeland. He has about 7,000 flight hours on the plane.

The six-seater is white with red seats, carpet and trim, most of which Stevens has replaced at considerable cost. The turbo-charged engine allows Stevens to fly at the speed of a twin-engine plane — about 200 mph — without burning as much fuel.

Soon after Hurricane Irma walloped Florida, Stevens began volunteering with AEROBridge, a nonprofit group that organizes pilots for emergency efforts. He made five flights with the group, which operated out of Lakeland Linder for about a week.

Because of damage to Key West International Airport, the first flights landed in Marathon, in the middle Keys. Stevens was first able to fly into Key West on Sept. 19.

Since AEROBridge finished its mission, Stevens has continued flying missions on his own. He estimated that this week’s planned trip would be his eighth such flight.

Hurricane Irma damaged the control tower at the Key West airport, and Stevens said the Federal Aviation Administration brought in a trailer to serve as the control center.

“You have to fly in and visually acquire the runway, so if you have weather it’s an issue, and they (air traffic controllers) have to see you,” Stevens said. “So it goes back to the old school, which is kind of nice in a way because literally you take off and you’re clearing the airport with the other pilots that are flying to make sure there’s no one else around you. The (trailer) is there to give you clearance for takeoff, but after that you’re looking for the other airplanes.”

Stevens, whose plane can hold 800 pounds, said has ferried Keys residents who evacuated to Central Florida. Other passengers have included church volunteers to do cleanup work and insurance claims adjusters. He ferried down a trio of rescue dogs.

Stevens has also delivered chainsaws, water, ready-to-eat meals, toiletry items, oil, batteries, charcoal and pet food and supplies.

Steve Hendrix, a commercial salesman at Bartow Ford, learned about Stevens’ flights and got in touch. Hendrix often visits the Keys and has formed a friendship with Nate Rogers, a guide with Dream Catcher Charters.

Knowing the hurricane had interrupted fishing charters, Hendrix put together a “care package” for Stevens to deliver to Rogers.

“He’s a jewel of a guy,” Hendrix said of Stevens. “If he could take that thing full of water and toilet paper and soap, he would do it. He’s doing this genuinely out of the kindness of his heart and for no other reason.”

It takes about $400 in fuel to fly round-trip to Key West. Stevens created a GoFundMe campaign to help defray his costs, and he received $2,080 in six days. Hendrix said he was glad to make a contribution.

Stevens said friends have asked him to describe the appearance of the Keys.

“I tell everybody, it’s like a very deep freeze hit the Keys,” he said. “The big thing for me is everything that used to be green is now brown.”

Stevens has also surveyed Key West from ground level. He said the hurricane blew down most of the large trees, removing the green buffers between houses. He mentioned La Trattoria, an Italian restaurant on Duval Street, as one of many businesses that had trees topple onto them.

He shared aerial shots on his cell phone showing many houses with their roofs ripped off. Other photos depicted boats strewn along the edge of a marina and recreational vehicles in a skewed pile beside a park.

“I’ve been flying to the Keys almost every weekend,” Stevens said. “That’s kind of a hangout place. To be able to give back to that community and be able to get them going again — the best way I can is to fly my plane.”

Although his missions are focused on helping others, Stevens has allowed himself one indulgence. The cargo hold of his plane Wednesday held a green coconut, one of a few Stevens has picked up in the Keys and brought back.

He will plant the coconuts in hopes of growing his own tree, fostering a hint of his beloved Key West at his home.

Original article can be found here ➤

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