Business aircraft owners assist in disaster relief

Helping in the humanitarian effort, corporate aircraft bring medical teams to aid Haitian earthquake survivors.

By Mike Potts
Contributor editor

Ramp scene at PAP. Departing medical team briefs arriving doctors and nurses on what they will find when they get to the clinic. Urgency is the order of the day.

It’s an overcast and chilly Saturday morning in late February at FTW (Meacham, Fort Worth TX). On the ramp at Texas Jet stands a Falcon 900 waiting to depart. Nearby, cardboard cartons containing medical supplies are being unloaded from the back of a Ford F250 by a group of men and women dressed in medical scrubs.

None of them has ever been in a business jet before today. After a few photographs to record the event, the group boards the aircraft, hurried along by the pilots who have a schedule to keep. The destination—PAP (Port-au-Prince, Haiti).

Pictured at FTW before departure, organizers, pilots, flight attendant and members of the orthopedic medical team from Temple TX ready to board the donated Falcon 900 for the flight to Haiti.

It’s corporate aviation at its finest—performing a mission that can be accomplished in no other way, with the goal of providing aid to people who need it desperately. This flight is just one of hundreds that have been provided pro bono by corporate aircraft operators since a devastating earthquake struck Port-au-Prince on Jan 12, killing 230,000 and injuring another 300,000.

Today’s trip will bring a team of doctors and nurses—mostly orthopedic specialists from the Temple TX area—to relieve another team that has been working at a clinic in Port-au-Prince for the past week. A timely departure is important because there is a slot system for arrivals in Haiti and an aircraft missing its arrival slot could be turned away.

(L–R) Orthopedic surgeon Bill Hamilton, anesthesiologist Gary Latson and orthopedic surgeon Mark Rahm examine a water purifying system they will use in Haiti. At rear is physical therapist and wound care specialist John Meyer. All are with Scott & White Health Care in Temple TX.

Our Falcon makes an ontime departure and the trip proceeds uneventfully. The doctors and nurses pass time checking out equipment that will purify drinking water and studying French– English dictionaries (the prevalent language in Haiti being a French-derived Creole).

Doctors on the return leg will report requiring constant assistance from high-school-age translators recruited to the clinic to facilitate communication. But that comes later. The doctors are curious about corporate aviation, which they quickly decide is better than traveling on the airlines.

How does this airplane compare with a Gulfstream? The passengers are curious about who is providing the flight, but are told their benefactor prefers to remain anonymous. “Come on, you can tell us—we’re doctors” produces only a smile from the pilots and flight attendant. After about 3 hours we begin our descent into Haitian airspace, talking to air traffic controllers who, it turns out, are working from a tent facility alongside the runway in PAP.

Large numbers of military and civilian helicopters, along with army vehicles and tents, give PAP the appearance of a military encampment.

The pilots are wary because there is a lot of military traffic in the area working frequencies we can’t hear and that can’t hear us. The approach to PAP is over water and we pass low over the hospital ship USS Hope anchored in the harbor.

PAP is about 3 miles from town and there is not much earthquake damage evident, but the facility looks like a military encampment, with trucks, tents and a Boeing C17 on the ramp getting ready to depart. The airport was largely undamaged in the quake. We are guided to parking in front of the terminal where we are met by a female missionary and the team we are to extract.

Before we can deplane, members of the other team are aboard, reporting on a stream of patients at the clinic waiting for treatment. The Falcon 900’s cargo is hastily unloaded, the outgoing team briefs the incoming team, and we are loaded and ready for departure in about 30 minutes.

A person not connected with the team attempts to slip aboard the aircraft but is identified as a stowaway and put off. After a short delay for traffic we are once again airborne. The outgoing doctors and nurses are grimmer than the team we just brought in.

(L–R) Mark Rahm, accompanied by an airport ramp attendant, with fellow doctors Bill Hamilton and Gary Latson, prepare to depart PAP for the clinic where patients are already waiting to be treated.

They have just spent a week working in a medical environment reminiscent of 100 years ago, operating in unsanitary conditions with outdated equipment. They tell of dogs and chickens roaming the clinic. Of working on an endless stream of badly injured people who haven’t had treatment since the quake. Some have broken bones that have started to heal at odd angles and have to be rebroken before they can be set correctly.

And the count­less orphaned children. One doctor who has been on site for 3 weeks tells of traveling with a patient in the back of a truck and being confronted with a gun-wielding terrorist who screams at him in words he can’t understand.

The doctor fears he’s about to be kidnapped when the terrorist departs as quickly as he appeared. During their time in the ravaged country the team members have developed a new appreciation for clean water, toilet paper, continuous electricity and a host of other amenities we take for granted.

This team is mostly from Ohio and they tell of a small fleet of donated corporate aircraft—a King Air, a Merlin, a Learjet 35, a Citation—that brought them from various starting points to south Florida where a Gulfstream took them across to Haiti.

(L–R) Departing medical team members Dublin Methodist/Ohio Health RN Amy Bush, Ohio State University Orthopedic Surgeon Minh Nguyen (in hat) and Scott & White Health Care Emergency Physician Terry Let­s­ing­er describe their experiences in Haiti to Flight Attendant Lois Bowman.

And now a Falcon 900 takes them to FXE. From there they will make their way home to their modern hospital facilities, where the lights in the operating room are dependably bright, the equipment is sterile and modern, and the toilets flush. They have served their profession honorably and have made a difference.

Their lives, they agree, have been changed by this experience—one they never would have had without a helping hand from corporate aviation. There has been no scheduled airline service to PAP since the quake, although at the end of February it was about to resume. But for more than 7 weeks corporate aviation has been the only civilian link providing fast transportation for medical personnel and supplies to aid the earthquake victims of Haiti.

It will probably never be known exactly how many corporate airplanes and how many flight departments participated and continue to take part in this corporate medical airlift to Haiti. But all of us who are involved in corporate aviation can be proud of what they accomplished.