Bahamas Relief Flights: Tap The Brakes

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The news coverage coming out of the northern Bahama islands is heartbreaking. The damage done by Hurricane Dorian to Abaco and Grand Bahama is so profound as to defy comprehension.

In responding to such major disasters, general aviation has—or can have—a role in providing immediate assistance and services that either can’t be delivered by traditional relief agencies or that can’t be furnished quickly enough. Light airplanes and their owners can turn on a dime—and therein lies a potential problem.

AOPA flew a small staff down to Nassau to coordinate the general aviation response and, as Tom Haines has reported on his Facebook postings, the infrastructure on some of these islands is either flooded or so seriously damaged as to be unusable for the short term, especially parking and storage. And by the time it is repaired, military and civil relief efforts may be running full tilt. And whether we like it or not, C-17s or C-130 are the air assets needed, not C-210s and PA-31s.

The Air Force asked AOPA to alert pilots that three airports—Grand Bahama International, Treasure Cay and Marsh Harbor—lack available ramp space and equipment to unload aircraft. Flying more stuff in just makes it worse.

Said Haines: “Pilots, check out the procedures before flying missions to the Bahamas. Don’t make the situation worse.” In fact, AOPA says it’s a better idea to donate money that attempt to fly supplies in yourself. Here’s a list of recommended organizations.

If you’re really determined to fly relief missions, we suggest contacting Operation Airdrop. This organization wisely stood down earlier this week and is standing by to see if it can fly more relief missions after things get sorted out. You can find more here.

Meanwhile, an infusion of cash will help a lot more than flying cases of water into already overloaded airports.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I was very impressed with Operation Airdrop in standing down, making a choice with the best interests of the Bahamian people in mind rather than flying missions for the sake of making GA pilots feel good. While I was ready to help (especially if the SE US got hit badly), I respect the mature judgment of the organization.

  2. Since 99.9% of general aviation would not even think of flying cross country to Florida and then making international over-water flights with a few cases of bottled water, this is a complete non-issue. The AOPA, FAA, and US Air force can scratch this one off their worry list.

    • “this is a complete non-issue. The AOPA, FAA, and US Air force can scratch this one off their worry list.”

      I disagree. Even if it’s the 0.1% you allow for. There is A LOT of general aviation in Florida and a lot that commonly make the flights to the Bahamas. And with the efforts of a number of online organized civilian relief flight caravans, it easily can and has gotten out of hand. Why do you think AOPA put out the word last week to avoid doing just this sort of thing? At the Bahamian and US government request. Now, no one listened (except for a few) so they put up a TFR. And, while well intentioned, people keep busting the TFR conducting their own personal relief flights. So, now the word is going out that the FAA is going to start going after airspace violators. I’ve worked from airfields with small MOG’s (maximum on ground) before and it can quickly become a cluster*&%#, even with someone controlling the flow.

      • “no one listened (except for a few) so they put up a TFR”

        No one listened? How many flights were there exactly?
        GA is obviously pretty much useless anyway because airfields there won’t have fuel.
        Personally I think the AOPA does a lot of things these days that are for show.

  3. I do agree with your comment about the usefulness of GA in this situation. I disagree with your view of AOPA, but I’ve heard that from others before, so maybe it’s me. But, other news sources, Facebook groups, etc. seem to validate this AVweb article and I don’t think AOPA is working it for show…………reference recent article from south Florida newspaper. Enjoy!

    https://www.miamiherald.com/news/weather/hurricane/article234792032.html

  4. I am sorry but I could not disagree more. I flew 2 relief flights over the weekend as a volunteer in my own aircraft, under the control of and for a local relief organization with authorization to fly into the TFR. Yes it was only 1000 lbs of supplies but these were desperately needed in the Abacos and Freeport and they very quickly went to the target organization in The Bahamas. I unloaded my aircraft and helped load it onto a truck. The ramps were busy but were not near capacity. While there are piles of supplies at the Stuart airport the issue is lack of aircraft and pilots and not ramp or storage space in The Bahamas. Supplies were getting distributed as quickly as they arrived. I did not do this to “feel good”. I stopped in to the donation center at the Stuart, FL airport to find out what they needed. They said they needed planes and pilots.

    Today or tomorrow the situation could be different and as time goes by more airports and seaports are opening to larger craft. Check with relief organizations and see what they need. I flew with the group at Stuart Jet Center (Thanks Jet Center for the fuel!!!) and the other at Stuart is Operation 300 (op300.org).

    The situation in the Abacos is near total destruction. Few if any building are not damaged and most are destroyed.

  5. I respect the position and knowledge of AVweb and enjoy reading your articles. However, as the second aircraft to put wheels down at Marsh Harbor on Thursday – I disagree with a majority of your coverage of this issue. Having extensive prior knowledge of these islands prior to the storm I was well aware of the devastation a +20 ft. storm surge would do to that island and the likelihood of a non-government response from the Bahamas.

    I chose to sign up with AEROBridge and use our Eclipse Jet to fly tactical missions early to get people in first and supplies later. I saw the transformation of a sleepy couple of airports (Treasure Cay & Marsh Harbor) into ground zero for providing much needed relief supplies, central hub for information, shelter and shade, and eventually the evacuation. For sure, particularly on Saturday & Sunday the airspace was crowded and hectic – but over the 4 missions we flew we experienced a group of random, dedicated, skilled pilots who worked out the bugs on their own as conditions dictated. Having perfect weather and relatively large runways in good shape didn’t hurt a bit either.

    With respect to your article I find it humorous that “AOPA flew a small staff down to Nassau to coordinate the general aviation response”. LOL – that’s sorta like coaching a football game from the bar across the street. Clearly the GA relief effort was centralized to Great Abaco where it was logically needed most. If AOPA and their resources really wanted to help – they would have had boots on the ground establishing some sort of air traffic control both in the air and on the ramp. As it was an ad-hoc group of volunteers did an admirable job in sweaty, noisy conditions over a long period of tense hours.

    I do agree [Operation Airdrop] “wisely stood down earlier this week and is standing by to see if it can fly more relief missions after things get sorted out.” but perhaps not for the reasons you state. All of our “missions” were organized by the *organization* we flew with (AEROBridge in this case). Had there been an organization organizing the organizations (hello AOPA?!?!?), perhaps time slots could have been established to distribute the air traffic load on a more leveled basis throughout the day. By the time coffee is poured and the aircraft are loaded, it’s pretty obvious that the 10am – 12am arrivals are going to swamp the airport. (Fortunately having a jet put us there ahead of the schedule in a few cases). Had someone offered to load us at 5 or 6 am…we’d have gladly watched the sunrise from the MYAM ramp. I do agree that Operation Airdrop should consider resuming on the tail end as there’ll be a natural tailing off of support while there’ll remain some locals all who wish to stay or volunteers that will need supplies for the foreseeable future. (Granted boats will do the heavy lifting from here but specific supplies and medicines can be readily addressed by GA).

    Finally, your comment “C-17s or C-130 are the air assets needed, not C-210s and PA-31s” entirely misses the point and makes me wonder how much thought you’ve put into the whole story. (I normally enjoy your wry and well thought out articles). Firstly, the demand for supplies on day one when the airports were finally accessibly was perhaps at it’s greatest as the storm had been at it’s fury for multiple days beforehand. People found themselves digging out from underneath rubble in quite a daze with missing loved ones and no personal belongings. At that time there was NO governmental response from the Bahamas (and still very little as of now) – and the US military is not going to simply barge into sovereign territory without a full bureaucratic process (perhaps also getting permission from AOPA’s Nassau bureau as well). It was at this time that the GA airlift was in it’s prime and performed wonderfully – and we were proud to be a part of.

    As for 210’s and PA-31’s…looking back at the photos we snapped..there were almost none of those. The mission itself inherently eliminated smaller aircraft as you needed enough fuel for a round tripper in addition to having capacity to carry a decent useful load. The shear bulk of the boxes and containers necessitated hulls with removable seats so in the end we witnessed King Aires, Kodiaks, Citations, and yes, one little Eclipse Jet (complete with removable seats).

    And while yes C-17’s & C-130’s would be nice – consider that these runways were multiple feet under the ocean just hours prior. Perhaps with your landing prowess you’d be willing to put down 500,000 lbs. of heavy iron on such a surface but I don’t thing the air force is quite willing to do so. In fact, it wasn’t until Saturday morning that *someone* chose to close down Marsh Harbor (at it’s busiest hour)…to go drill bore holes in the runway to check the substrate for heavy aircraft operations. Perhaps AOPA from Nassau chose that time…?

    All in all I’m sure there’s many lessons to be learned – but the outcome can’t be argued as anything but successful and a pat on the back to those who dedicated much time, money, and effort to a worthy cause. For those of you across the street at the bar doing the coaching, have another beer on me.

    -Shawn Chaney
    Eclipse N941CM

  6. I agree with the previous post and also enjoy Avweb reporting. However, the reporting on the state of the remaining citizens of the affected islands and the traffic within Bahamian airspace does not match what we are experiencing on site. We are going in with larger GA aircraft (4000-5000 lbs payload) with a BCAA TFR code on organized missions. In the disaster area, there is very little in the way of an organized relief infrastructure, civilian, government or military. The US military is present and operating. In order to be truly effective, the relief supplies need to be targeted to a need and it’s best if there is a receiving party on site to properly handle the material after offload.

    But to the point. Counter to reports and “common knowledge” we have not seen a swarm of disruptive GA planes. We have not experienced ATC delays. There has not been mass chaos at the airports on Abaco and Grand Bahama. What we have experienced is orderly conduct and civility even among the most uncomfortable and hardest hit Dorian survivors. It has also been possible to operate in the airport environments in a normal manner without increased risk. The pilots in the area seem to be skilled, contentious, and are working together to operate safely.

    GA’s roll in these types of events may be limited, but targeted aid supplied by light aircraft is critical, especially in an area such as the Bahamas where remote locations may only be reached by GA plane or boat.

    • Not sure what you mean about a government ban? There is a TFR in place – the stated purpose to reduce non-relief/normal GA traffic from the area which is understandable. That said the Bahamas are a proud people just like any other and I’m sure there are those within the government a little perturbed about our invasion of their sovereign territory. Tough luck I say for the short term – the non-preparedness/non-response by their government invited such a situation.

      That said – Marsh Harbor actually had the customs office up and running Monday. Though it was very basic paperwork (Gen-Decs). The officer was nice as pie, very appreciative of the effort, and more than willing to assist with coordinating the off load.