September 2, 2011

Some pilots didn’t even wait for the storm to hit – as Hurricane Irene was gathering strength over the Caribbean late last month, the business aviation community was already flying supplies to communities in the storm’s path.

Bob Showalter, chairman of Orlando FBO Showalter Flying Service, flew a load of canned food, water, batteries, tarps and other supplies to the Bahamas in his 1974 Aztec on Wednesday, August 24, the day before the hurricane hit the islands. He’s flown several trips to the Bahamas since, delivering supplies to the fire chief of Treasure Cay.

“We know how tenuous it is for the people down there,” said Showalter. “We’ve seen a lot of trees down, roofs off, sunken boats and damaged docks. Because of where the storm went after, and the damage in the U.S., the Bahamas haven’t that got much attention, but they were hit really hard. There’s been a lot of flooding and they just don’t have the resources like we do.”

About five other operators based at Orlando Executive Airport (ORL) have also been flying relief missions to the Bahamas, in addition to another half dozen operators based at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE). Many of the missions to the Bahamas have been coordinated by Bahamas Habitat, a nonprofit relief organization supported by young volunteers. Showalter Flying Service at ORL and Banyan Air Service at FXE have been the two bases for Bahamas Habitat, donating their hangars for relief missions, selling fuel at near cost and happily allowing the organization to fill their conference rooms with supplies.

Gary Smith, senior partner of Sarasota Yacht & Ship, received an alert from Angel Flight that Bahamas Habitat needed pilot volunteers. “I showed up at FXE on Sunday, August 28, and the team from Bahamas Habitat was in search of goods. They had planes but nothing to deliver,” said Smith. “The other pilots and I knew we had to act fast. We went to the nearest Wal-Mart or Winn-Dixie and bought cases of canned food, jugs of water, tarps, flashlights and towels.”

In a few hours, Smith was headed south in his Mooney J Model. He’s made two trips and estimates that the volunteers flying out of FXE have delivered well over 5,000 pounds of supplies to the Bahamas. “It’s really amazing how much cargo a small plane will hold with all seats removed and no passengers.”

Standing By: Hundreds of Airplanes and Volunteers

While the damage to U.S. communities in Vermont and Upstate New York was also extensive, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Guard have been taking the lead on relief flights. But that doesn’t mean that hundreds of volunteers from the business aviation community aren’t already mobilized and ready to respond if the government should need additional support delivering supplies.

“We’ve had about 75 aircraft register to respond since Irene hit the Northeast,” said Marianne Stevenson, president of AERObridge. “The FEMA voluntary agency liaison for the New York region invited me to be on their hurricane response calls so if they see high priority shortages that need rapid response, such as prescription medications, we can mobilize the business aviation community quickly.”

AERObridge, Angel Flight, the Civil Air Patrol, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and NBAA all worked together to send out calls for volunteers. NBAA encouraged operators who could be of assistance to register for its Humanitarian Emergency Response Operator (HERO) Database, which has had some 200 volunteers sign up since it was first established.

“I’m very proud that there are so many people in business aviation involved,” said Showalter. “It’s just a natural humanitarian thing to do – to help out when you can.”

For More Information

If you are affiliated with a relied organization that wants to learn more about how business aviation can help, contact NBAA’s Doug Carr at