I will never forget being in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. The area experienced one of its worst natural disasters. Roads were flooded, houses were destroyed, and people were left with nothing. Many of us in Texas felt a sense of urgency to do something, but were seemingly out of options. In our first attempt to reach the communities in need, our trucks and trailers were turned back by flooded roads. It became apparent that the versatility of general aviation was the only resource for disaster relief and recovery in the immediate aftermath of the storm. A team of pilots, local volunteers, and small aircraft decided that we would just fly over the roads and answer the call for Southeast Texas.
It didn’t take long to get to work. From a collection of friends, aviation professionals, local elected officials, and airport managers, Operation Airdrop started organically with a mission to help those in need. With command centers in Beaumont Municipal Airport and Denton Enterprise Airport, we mobilized local support to load planes, manage logistics, and deliver essential supplies through general aviation. After just a couple of days, our operations had grown so much that we had to transfer our records from a white board in an airport conference room to a digital database that can accommodate the needs of a national organization.
With pilots stretching every corner of the country, our organization has served almost every major storm since Hurricane Harvey. From the Carolinas to The Caribbean, general aviation is a life-saving tool that provides immediate relief to these communities when it would otherwise take days to receive aid. We will receive distress calls from city officials and local residents that are in life or death situations. From the time it takes to gather supplies, load planes, and deliver those supplies, we can complete a successful mission in about 3 hours. During our most successful efforts, I will get a call back from the same people telling us to stop deliveries because of the massive surplus they have!
General aviation and local airports bring these communities back to life in times when their utilities are needed most. For example, it enables us to deliver chainsaws that are used to clear roads and open base-level transportation routes for the next phase of recovery. During Hurricane Florence, we flew a water filtration system to Cape Fear, North Carolina to supplant their water system, we brought hot meals to the town of Maxton, North Carolina for people that had been eating canned beans for five days, and we brought dehumidifiers and generators to communities across the Carolinas. The impact of this work is immense: 84,000 pounds of supplies to the Florida Keys, 90,000 pounds of supplies to the Florida Panhandle, 250,000 pounds of supplies to Houston, 284,000 pounds of supplies to the Carolinas, and 2.3 million pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico.
The immediate response from Operation Airdrop gives these communities hope and motivation during their most trying times. Most importantly, our efforts foster and rely on community involvement from the areas affected. There is nothing more inspiring than to see folks who may have had their home ruined, or their street flooded, but are still motivated to lend a helping hand.
The fact is there are over 5,000 public-use airports that fulfill roles beyond just the commercial industry. These airports are vital, particularly for rural communities, in providing disaster relief, emergency medical services, law enforcement, and business development. During the hurricane season, I am always encouraged by the willingness of airport managers to offer their services when most public-use facilities are shutdown. They are literal lifelines for storm victims because they act as logistical centers, loading zones, and communication hubs for our operations.
Soon Congress is going to debate proposals to revamp and improve our nation’s infrastructure and as part of this we should not forget the importance of our small airports and aircraft. Yes our big airports and airlines are important, but let’s not ever forget that there are thousands of airports around the country that are a literal lifeline to thousands of communities around the US.
Doug Jackson is the co-founder of Operation Airdrop.