Rich Pickett is SDSU’s CIO and a licensed pilot for 32 years. He is volunteering his time to fly relief flights to earthquake ravaged Haiti and will be sharing his experiences here as often as he is able …
Gray, Brad Barker, and others loaded another plane full of equipment, including the day’s previous supplies that were destined for Port Au Prince. Robert Caplin, a freelance photographer from New York joined me on the flight. He wanted an adventure and Sueanne Campion paired us together. At least he was still smiling when we parted at 9 p.m. that night.
Just before departure, we learned that a jet had been located to take the kids in Jacmel from Florida to Philadelphia. We volunteered to pick them up in Jacmel and return to Ft. Lauderdale. The FAA designated us as a Life Guard flight, so we received priority handling. At Port Au Prince, they were so used to seeing us that a number of relief workers and Haitians came out to greet and hug us. We quickly unloaded and I distributed some special order items to people working at the airport, both airport staff and US relief workers. We had gone out the night before and purchased pillows, sunglasses (for the kids), toys, food, and other items. For people living on the ground, a pillow was a blessing! One of the U.S. Customs staff had asked for a tent for his mother who was living outside, so we brought one along for her. The fuel truck, usually difficult to find, came immediately and helped. I only wish we could help longer.
We took off from Port Au Prince and made a quick dash over the hilltops to Jacmel. I made a aerial tour over the town for Robert and was pleasantly surprised to see new tents in their main tent compound. We landed at Jacmel and as we parked noticed a camera crew. Apparently an IMAX production company had learned of our medical evacuation and wanted to film the operation. They were very helpful, and I allowed them to film from inside the cabin. I asked for free tickets to the movie!
We always try to bring supplies to the cities we visit, so we off loaded supplies for a mission and also specific food, tents, and tarps that we had purchased for the airport staff. We had finally located a tent for Pierre !
Our passengers included 15 month old Antoine (suffering from a severe heart defect), Fania and Daphaka, (leg amputations), Marc (fractured leg, pinned and infected), family, and medical staff. Fania was rescued after four days trapped in under rubble. The older children all have serious gangrene, and Marc will probably lose his leg when he arrives in Philadelphia. I learned that the girls had waited a week outside the clinic before receiving help when the American medical team arrived. Typically patients would wait in the courtyard, either by themselves or with their families until they received care. With so many people, and few trained resources there were no other options. Prior to the earthquake, 400 children died each day of starvation in Haiti.
This was their first time in an airplane and they were great passengers. We departed Jacmel with a heavy load. After departure I gave them an aerial tour of their city before heading northwest toward Cap Haitian. The control tower, manned by Canadians, bid us adieu and thanked us for taking the children. Once in the air, they sang Haitian songs and Robert was in the back with them recording their singing and the adventure.
I offered for the kids to join me in the cockpit. Despite their pain, they didn’t hesitate. The first was was Daphaka. I lifted her into the co-pilot seat and helped her position her stump comfortably. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Creole, however some how we communicated for over 40 minutes. I taught her how to turn the airplane, with many shrieks and laughs from the others. Even back on the autopilot, she continued to pay strict attention to the instruments. I showed her the operation of one of my onboard computers and she was a helpful crew member.
Marc was next. The nurses asked if he wanted to try since he is in such pain most of the time. Apparently I learned later, that there were no options. He was going to fly the airplane no matter what. His Dad and I somehow maneuvered him into the right seat with his fractured leg. Once I showed him how to fly and use the navigation computer, he was all set. I showed him Cuba on our immediate left as we flew north and he was proud to show his Dad how to run the system and zoom into Jacmel on the moving map.
As we helped Fania into my co-pilot seat, I was imagining how terrifying it must have been, buried in rubble for 4 days then waiting a week in pain outside the clinic. Seeing her in the right seat of this airplane, flying over the Bahamas at 22,000 feet and smiling was a wonder! At times she was a bit nervous, however she grabbed my arm and she continued with me until we landed at Fort Lauderdale International airport.
During the flight I called ahead by satellite phone and ask Gray to see if he could obtain McDonald’s hamburgers for everyone, with children’s meals for the kids. I also asked U.S. Customs to expedite clearances for my passengers. When we landed at the airport at the private plane area, I saw familiar faces, including Officer Winchester, at U.S. Customs and they extended ever courtesy to us. I had not followed all of the rules on my previous flight and he and the other officers were gracious enough to accept my apology.
My wife, Jane, had flown in to join me for a few days to help. She and Gray had picked up the food, and the kids devoured their hamburgers and chicken nuggets quickly. Marc was now in extreme pain, probably exacerbated by flying the airplane, however the nurse and doctor said they had never seen him move so much in the past and it was worth it. His Dad and I held him in our laps while waiting for the next airplane to take them to Philly. Neither one of us knew each other’s language, however we had a common bond.
The jet’s departure was late due to their initial reluctance to depart without photo identification of the Haitians, in accordance with TSA rules. It took some time to resolve and we waited until we were sure they would take off, then back to our airport at 9 p.m., Ft. Lauderdale Executive to get ready for the next day.
Once we were back at the hotel, I received another email from Steve Heicklen that indicated they needed another medical transport. We had anticipated leaving on Thursday, well actually we had planned on leaving a few days ago. It took only seconds to determine that we were flying to Jacmel again in the morning.
I need to call the County Court when I return and apologize for missing Jury Duty on Monday.