Bizav shines in Haitian earthquake relief effort

Aviation International News » February 2010
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January 26, 2010, 9:39 AM

On the descent for landing in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the scene is about what you’d expect to find after violent natural forces–in this case, a sudden release of tectonic stress in the earth’s crust along the Caribbean and North American plates–have caused massive destruction in one of the world’s poorest nations. Entire neighborhoods here are pancaked into the dust. Gray smoke rises
in plumes from fires that have burned for days. Survivors huddle in makeshift encampments or roam the city streets searching for food, water and medicine.

Catastrophe, as it so often does, has come once again to those who can least endure it.

The Honeywell Gulfstream G450 touched down at 3:27 p.m. on January 18 carrying 12,000 vials of ceftriaxone, a powerful antibiotic used to treat pneumonia and other bacterial illnesses, and 1,440 cut-resistant gloves for help with rescue and recovery efforts. On board were aid workers and representatives from Operation USA, a California-based relief organization that has partnered with Honeywell’s Hometown Solutions group in the aftermath of other natural disasters, including the 2004 Asian tsunami and the earthquake that hit Sichuan, China, in 2008. The flight was one of scores by general aviation airplanes bringing desperately needed supplies to Haiti in the days immediately after the country’s worst earthquake in more than 200 years.

As the Gulfstream rolled past the bustle of activity on the main ramp at Port-au-Prince’s airport to the end of the 10,000-foot runway, the U.S. military controller on the tower frequency asked the G450 crew where they had been assigned to unload. UN parking, one of the pilots replied.

“Turn right next taxiway,” the controller instructed.

The red-and-white Gulfstream swung onto the ramp at the end of the runway and taxied to a stop. In contrast to the busy main parking area it had just passed, this part of the airport was deserted except for a few United Nations Hueys and Dash 7s baking in the sun. Something was wrong.

The G450’s airstair door dropped down, letting in a rush of the acrid Haiti air. Within moments a UN van was speeding onto the ramp, the official at the wheel clutching a clipboard. He stepped out of the vehicle and walked toward the crew, the look on his face clearly indicating this was an unexpected–and unwelcome–arrival.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” he said.

To understand how a Honeywell Gulfstream loaded with medical supplies and carrying aid workers and an aviation journalist ended up on a ramp at Port-au-Prince’s airport six days after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake leveled much of the city requires backtracking several days. In fact, you need to go all the way back to the moment when most people realized just how serious a humanitarian tragedy the earthquake in Haiti was.

Normally when a natural disaster occurs, Honeywell’s Hometown Solutions group huddles to decide how it can help with rebuilding. When Hometown Solutions president Tom Buckmaster spoke on the phone with Operation USA founder Richard Walden to ask what the relief group needed, the response was immediate: “We could really use a plane,” Walden said. Buckmaster told Walden he would see what he could do.

Honeywell had lent assistance after other natural disasters, but never had the company donated the use of an airplane for humanitarian relief. Still, if there was ever a time to do so, this was it.

A day after the earthquake, Buckmaster and Kelly Reed, Honeywell’s director of corporate citizenship, were in Honeywell chairman David Cote’s office in Morristown, N.J., pitching the idea of sending one of the company’s corporate Gulfstreams to Port-au-Prince to deliver medical supplies and an advance team of aid workers. Cote gave his blessing and told the men to make it happen.

The green light from the top of Honeywell’s hierarchy set in motion a plan to send an airplane into Haiti with supplies and aid workers as soon as possible. Complicating matters was the fact that Walden’s UN contact in Haiti had been killed in the quake. Over the course of the next few days it was decided that the aid organization would send a doctor and nurse who would be tasked with assessing the situation on the ground and reporting back to Walden and his team. Antibiotics and gloves would be sent to help rescuers deal with the most pressing medical and recovery needs.

Unlike other aid organizations that send personnel to disaster sites, Operation USA donates medical equipment and other supplies. It says just 2 percent of the donations it receives are used to cover overhead expenses. The rest of the money goes toward medical gear and other supplies, including tents, water purification systems and electric generators that are stored in warehouses until needed.

Operation USA had already struck a deal with United Airlines to bring relief equipment to Haiti. But first it needed to know what type of gear aid groups like Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders needed most urgently. That’s where Honeywell and its G450 were needed.

Walden put together a team that included Maxo Luma, a native Haitian now living in Vancouver whose sister and another relative were killed in the quake; Stefanie Dee Nieber, an Operation USA nurse from Los Angeles; and Steve Texas, a native Haitian living in Boston. Luma is a Haiti-trained doctor. Texas was offering the use of a house in Port-au-Prince undamaged in the quake. Dee Nieber’s job would be to visit the field hospitals and makeshift triage centers in Port-au-Prince, taking an inventory of what equipment would help the most.

Slot Reservation Needed

Reed took the lead on logistics for getting the group to Haiti, working with Honeywell’s flight dispatchers to make the arrangements. Hundreds of e-mails and phone calls among flight department personnel, representatives from NBAA, U.S. government officials and UN representatives set the wheels in motion for an aid flight to Haiti on the morning of Martin Luther King Day, just six days after the quake.

Honeywell’s public relations department also put Reed in touch with an editor at AIN to offer a ride in an empty seat on the flight. The invitation was accepted on the understanding that the reporter would not take up space that could be used to carry supplies or aid workers and that he would be permitted to help offload the airplane in Haiti and participate in other tasks related to the mission.

The flight crew for the trip included Honeywell pilots Dave Armstrong and Marc Lajeunesse and flight attendant Nan Kramer, as well as Honeywell mechanic Joe Acocella, who would be on board just in case anything went wrong with the airplane. Reed and two representatives from Operation USA also were picked to go along on the flight, bringing the total number of people selected for the mission to 11.

At 6 a.m. on January 18 the Gulfstream was loaded with supplies and passengers in Honeywell’s hangar at Morristown Airport. Most of the preparations had been made, but there was still one nagging problem: as the G450 taxied for departure, the crew did not have a slot reservation permitting them to land in Port-au-Prince. It was appearing more likely that the flight would be forced to divert to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. A helicopter arranged by Partners in Health would meet the trio of Operation USA aid workers there to take them to Haiti. Not an ideal situation, but without a slot into Port-au-Prince’s airport it seemed to be the only option.

The Gulfstream left Morristown at 6:53 a.m. bound for Richmond, Va., where the crew took on as much fuel as possible for the mission. The concern was that a hold near Santo Domingo or Port-au-Prince (or possibly both) and no chance of refueling at either stop could strain the range limits of even the long-legged G450 if things started going south. According to NBAA, the fuel in Port-au-Prince was contaminated and crews were waiting up to five hours to refuel in Santo Domingo.
As Honeywell dispatchers continued trying to obtain a slot reservation for landing in Port-au-Prince, the Gulfstream departed Richmond bound for Santo Domingo. The airplane touched down there about four hours later and taxied onto the GA ramp beside other diverted relief flights and UN and military airplanes staging in the Dominican Republic. The problem with the airport in Port-au-Prince wasn’t the single runway or the fact that there is no parallel taxiway, but rather the limited ramp space. “Once you’ve got a couple of jumbos and other airplanes on the ramp, it’s full,” Lajeunesse explained.

Airport workers in Santo Domingo helped offload all the supplies as the Operation USA representatives tried to locate the helicopter they had been promised.

It soon became clear that no helicopter was waiting to pick up the group. The Operation USA contact reached by phone had no answers about where it might be. The alternative was to take a bus or truck to Port-au-Prince, a trek that meant driving 12 hours on treacherous roads over the mountains. Word came next that a relief flight from Norway carrying doctors and nurses whose flight missed its slot reservation into Port-au-Prince was stranded at Santo Domingo. The group had been stuck in the terminal there for two days with no way of getting to Haiti after their repeated requests for a new slot into Port-au-Prince were denied. Apparently, getting to Haiti from Santo Domingo without a slot reservation was harder than it seemed.

Now realizing that leaving the Operation USA group and their supplies on the tarmac in Santo Domingo with no confirmed way to get to Haiti wasn’t much of an option, the crew contacted Honeywell’s government affairs group in Washington, which was working its contacts at the State Department, FAA and United Nations to secure a slot into Port-au-Prince. Push had finally come to shove and Honeywell’s representatives in Washington were shoving hard.

Flight Cleared

Just when it looked as if the mission might be doomed to failure, word came back that a slot had opened up. The pilots immediately started making arrangements to file flight plans into Port-au-Prince and out of Haiti and into Miami, where they would clear customs and refuel. Wheels-up time would be in one hour and 10 minutes, allowing the flight to hit its slot arrival in Port-au-Prince precisely at 3:30 p.m.

As the supplies were being reloaded into the Gulfstream’s cargo hold, Stefanie Dee Nieber went to talk with the group of doctors in the terminal to see if she could help them make arrangements to get to Haiti. She’d been gone for almost an hour when the Honeywell flight crew began to ask about her whereabouts. Phone calls were made to the terminal to find the nurse. An hour passed and still there was no word on Dee Nieber’s location. The pilots and Operations USA representatives weren’t sure if she’d even taken her passport with her into the terminal.

After an hour and 10 minutes had elapsed, Lajeunesse came back into the cabin. “Now it’s time to panic,” he said. “We just got our clearance to Port-au-Prince. We need to leave now or we miss our slot time.”

Before any decision about what to do next needed to be made, a minivan carrying Dee Nieber raced from the terminal to the waiting Gulfstream. The nurse climbed on board the airplane with the happy news that she’d helped arrange for helicopters to transport 30 stranded doctors and five nurses to Port-au-Prince later that day.

Once under way, the Gulfstream flight to Port-au-Prince took just 26 minutes, after which the crew was cleared for a visual approach to Runway 10, a path that took the airplane over the demolished port and the devastation in the city center. From the G450’s jump seat, streams of refugees could be seen filling the main roads around the airport, which appeared to have been purposely blocked by abandoned vehicles. At the airport a makeshift tent city was erected near the main terminal building. Six Black Hawk helicopters waited on the tarmac, their rotors turning.
Smaller GA airplanes were being directed to park on the grass while a U.S. Air Force C-5 transport loaded refugees and a FedEx Airbus prepared to depart. Alongside the runway, a U.S. soldier with binoculars stood atop a truck, serving as the eyes for air traffic controllers.

After pulling onto the UN ramp and securing the airplane, the Honeywell crew showed the clipboard-toting worker who had driven out to meet them the fax
they had received directing them to park in the UN area. Apparently this official’s bosses had approved the Gulfstream’s arrival but nobody had passed word to him. Satisfied that the airplane had indeed received the required authorization to unload there, the UN official summoned two pickup trucks to transport the supplies and aid workers. He explained to the pilots that an Airbus A330 had mistakenly taxied onto the UN ramp the night before. While the crew was powering its engines to do a 180 and exit the area, the thrust blast blew down part of a brick wall and damaged
a UN Huey and the two Dash 7s parked there, disabling all three of the aircraft.

With the supplies safely delivered to the UN trucks, the crew said their goodbyes to the three aid workers staying behind and wished them luck. Reed gave Dee Nieber a digital camera and asked her to document her travels. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t have a camera. I was told to bring only what I needed to stay alive.” She promised to take pictures and get them to Reed. Asked how long they would be staying in Haiti, the three said they didn’t know. “Indefinite,” Dee Nieber said. “I’m staying as long as I’m needed.”

Maxo Luma’s immediate concern was for his family, he said. His parents were unharmed, but other relatives and friends had been injured. “I’m bracing for bad news when I find them,” he said. Steve Texas’s only relative in Port-au-Prince is his grandmother, who survived the earthquake with minor injuries. Friends were offering the use of their home in the city, where the trio and other aid workers were being invited to stay. Dee Nieber said she would start checking in with the field hospitals first, and also mentioned she planned to visit an orphanage damaged by the quake.

Less than 30 minutes after arriving, the Honeywell crew was leaving the Operation USA group and powering up the Gulfstream for departure. Cleared for immediate takeoff on Runway 28, the G450 gathered momentum and lifted off once again into the haze above Port-au-Prince.

After a quick stop in Miami the Gulfstream was again airborne, this time bound for Morristown. When the airplane landed and was safely in the hangar, arrangements were already being discussed for another trip to Haiti. This time the crew hoped to be able to bring a bigger load of supplies into Port-au-Prince as well as take refugees out of the country.

Reed said Honeywell’s Hometown Solutions group has also committed to helping with rebuilding in Port-au-Prince after the immediate needs for assistance have been met. “We couldn’t have done this without our partners at Operation USA and Partners in Health and the assistance of so many people within Honeywell,”
he said at the conclusion of the mission. “It’s a wonderful feeling to have been able to pull this off.”     

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