Hurricane Charley Firsthand — Devastation at Punta Gorda

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On scene, Aviation Consumer's Paul Bertorelli reports on the damage from Hurricane Charley.

Hurricane Charley

In a scene sadly reminiscent of several South Florida airports in the wake of Hurricane Andrew a decade ago, Charlotte County’s Punta Gorda Airport bore the early wrath of Charley as he came ashore just north of Fort Meyers late Friday afternoon. Radar data indicated that Charley’s compact eye tracked northeasterward up Charlotte Harbor directly at the airport, which lies at the head of the harbor.

Damage to Aircraft Depot, a local maintenance shop. For more images, click here.

Peak winds were variously estimated between 125 and 140 mph, although we were unable to confirm any of these estimates. Given the destruction, wind speed figures may prove to be academic. From our tour of the airport Saturday morning, virtually no part of it remained intact. Aircraft of various sizes were scattered across the airport’s broad terminal ramp area and at least four had been blown into the terminal walls. The airport terminal building sustained significant damage and loss of roof sheathing but appeared (we're not experts) otherwise sound.

The same can’t be said of several rows of T-hangars located northwest of the terminal and a large Quonset-type hangar situation in the same area. These structures were demolished by high winds, taking numerous airplanes, cars and even a boat or two with them. A large steel hangar south of the terminal area collapsed entirely.

Several rows of T-hangars north of the terminal building were destroyed. For more images, click here.

One owner, picking through the rubble of what was his hangar, told us his airplane was blown mostly intact about 150 feet from the hangar. It appeared repairable.

“The windshield is broken and it’s got some dents. I covered the hole … I guess we’ll see,” the owner told us. Improbably, in a hangar in the same row, two ultralights appeared untouched by the violent winds. Complicating recovery efforts Saturday was more violent weather, in the form of passing thunderstorms. A tornado warning was issued for Sarasota County, north of Punta Gorda.

Obviously, airport businesses will be impacted by the damage. Power lines were down everywhere and officials provided no ready estimates on when power would be restored. Eastern Avionics, a major avionics dealer, suffered noticeable damage to the roof of its sales office and its installation hangar was wide open, although aircraft inside appeared lightly damaged. Aircraft Depot, a local repair shop, lost both doors of its large hangar and the aircraft inside were piled in a twisted heap in front of the hangar.

Even secure tie-downs weren't enough to save some planes, like this Tomahawk. For more images, click here.

On the upside, several rows of recently constructed T-hangars on the northwest side of the field appeared to have fared rather well. Although the windward row was damaged, possibly by aircraft torn loose from their tie-downs, few of the others appeared to have more than minor dings and owners were busily checking aircraft for damage. Altogether, we estimate that 30 aircraft were destroyed, with many more damaged. So many were in unidentifiable pieces that an accurate count was difficult. Some aircraft were still securely tied down but had been shredded by flying debris or the shear force of the wind. One Piper Tomahawk remained tied down but its tail had been twisted off.

The airport remained open Saturday for relief flights, primarily as a staging area for a fleet of helicopters being used for damage survey and patrol work. The airport was also being used as a staging area for a large number of tree clearing and utility crews.