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Hurricane Ida Relief Flights to Feed Victims

FYI, I’m actually the guy flying the plane in the news story above.

WFFD Fire Demon 1 Flight Debrief

Date: 9-3 to 9-6-2021

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Incident: Hurricane Ida Relief

Flight Time:  20 Hours

Mission Goals:

To assist Operation Airdrop to deliver hot meals to victims of Hurricane Ida that struck Louisiana.

What Went Well:

  1. Good communications and teamwork within the air ops team of Pilot and Tactical Flight Officer (TFO).
  2. Excellent coordination with Air Traffic Control (ATC).
  3. Exceptional crew resource management on the ground and in the air to balance resources to accomplish the mission.
  4. Meals were safely delivered under exceptionally challenging conditions on the ground and in the air.
  5. Safe flight operations in a highly problematic location.
  6. The teamwork between all entities involved was very impressive to observe.

Description:

We received a request for assistance from Operation Airdrop, a respected charitable organization that provides immediate relief for victims of natural disasters. We flew for them previously in 2018 to deliver critical supplies to victims of Hurricane Florence. They are a great organization that puts needed supplies in airplanes and provides them to people in immediate need.

Our mission was to deliver hot food to victims and first responders in Houma, Louisiana, where it was being disturbed. We were able to carry 500 full meals on each flight.

The meals were prepared by Operation BBQ Relief and distributed on the receiving side by volunteers from the Cajun Navy.

On September 3, 2021, Captain Ian Moffatte and I departed from Raleigh Durham International Airport (RDU). Captain Moffatte is a trained Tactical Flight Officer in our airplane, designated Fire Demon 1 by the FAA.

The initial flight plan was to make our first stop in Montgomery, Alabama, but we were using more fuel than planned, so we had to make an earlier stop in Tuskegee, Alabama. This was the airport where the famous Tuskegee Airmen were trained for World War II flight operations.

We then made it to our destination in Jackson, Mississippi. Due to the widespread power outages in Louisiana and the lack of hotel rooms, this was the nearest location we could find to stay. It was an hour’s flight to our aid base in Hammond, Louisiana.

On September 4, 2021, TFO Moffatte and I departed Jackson, Mississippi, for Hammond, Louisiana. We arrived and met the team from Operation Airdrop.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

After arriving in Hammond, we noticed the airport had suffered damage from the storm. Many buildings were destroyed and unusable. There was no power to the airport. Everywhere you looked, there was structural damage. Military flight controllers were servicing the temporary control tower, and they did not have an operational radar.

It quickly became apparent another significant factor was going to be managing the heat. It was approximately 95 degrees with high humidity, and no air conditioning was available at our operational location. So, dehydration was a genuine concern, and thankfully, we recognized that issue and believed we had hydrated sufficiently. But, unfortunately, despite our efforts, we were still behind the hydration curve at the end of the day.

All pilots did their best to prepare for the flight by staying undercover with the doors open the hope of a breeze.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

I don’t have any better description of the impact of the heat than to say it was brutal. I found myself trying my best to keep myself sharp to be at my best to fly the missions rather than carry boxes and lift heavy items on the ramp. However, TFO Moffatte jumped in and aided all who needed help with supplies.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

The flights would take place after the arrival, by truck, of the food from Operation BBQ Rescue. The meals were packaged in bags inside of black foam totes to keep them warm. The totes weighed approximately 75 pounds each. Meals were comprised of a protein such as pork, chicken, or beef and a vegetable. The bread was included in additional boxes.

We could carry four totes per flight with four boxes of bread. TFO Moffatte was tasked with being the loadmaster and organized the loading of the airplane following our mutually agreed cargo plan. While he loaded the aircraft, I planned our flight and prepared for departure.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims
Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

You can see the Baggage Organizer in the picture above behind the hot meal tote being loaded. It keeps emergency aircraft supplies organized to allow for more room to carry relief supplies. I not only invented it but also depend on it on all our emergency missions. And of course, I could not do all of this without the Cockpit Organizer upfront.

After loading, the flight of five aircraft would depart to Houma, Louisiana, where the destruction was more extraordinary. There we would unload the cargo of food and transfer it to the Cajun Navy for distribution.

As we overflew the area, we could see the extent of the damage. It was tremendous.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims
Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

The flying was highly challenging. Planes were operating close together and at low altitudes. In addition, we had to manage low-flying helicopters and other aircraft. I found myself taking evasive action several times to prevent a situation from becoming critical.

The Houma airport was also without power, as was most of the area in Louisiana. The control tower had been damaged, and the controller was guiding in multiple aircraft without any radar. Flight operations required good communications and teamwork from all the pilots in the airspace.

The Houma area and airport had significant damage.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims
Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims
Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

We quickly unloaded and returned to base (RTB) in Hammond.

Weather and hazy flight conditions required us to be agile and well-focused outside of the aircraft to watch for traffic. TFO Moffatte has an exceptional eye for spotting other aircraft while I maintained my focus inside the plane.

On return to Hammond, we had the opportunity to take a walk and get a closer look at the damaged buildings near our base.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims
Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

While we were walking, we heard what sounded like a generator and then discovered a lone air conditioning compressor running. In addition, the small operations building at the airport appeared to have the air conditioning.

The airport manager was kind enough to invite the other pilots in to cool off for a bit. Then, after some time, it was time to repeat the flight with the next round of meals.

After returning to Raleigh, I called David Lobue, the airport manager, and thanked him on behalf of the Fire Department and Town for his graciousness in letting us recover in his building. He wanted me to pass on the following comment, “In this day and age, it is heartwarming to see people going out of their way to assist our hard-hit community down here. The assistance your fire department provide was much needed in our time of great need.”

We flew in another 500 meals to Houma while dealing with very crowded airspace.

After leaving Houma, we had to fly direct to Jackson, Mississippi and arrived very tired and fatigued, and that made the after-sunset landing more challenging. We hydrated and ate snacks on the trip back to build some energy.

I looked ahead at the weather for Monday morning when I had planned to leave to return to North Carolina. Unfortunately, an incoming weather front was due to settle over Jackson on Monday morning and I felt that would make for a riskier departing flight. I discussed the facts with Captain Moffatte and encouraged his feedback and input to adjust our departure plans.

Given the risk of departing into low clouds, rain, and potential embedded thunderstorms on Monday morning, we decided that we would leave early after another food flight on Sunday.

We later learned that the weather did indeed cancel all flights and operations on Monday after we departed.

We flew from Jackson to Hammond and were the first aircraft to arrive on Sunday morning. After the food arrived, we loaded up and departed for Houma again. This time we would return with as many empty food totes as we could carry for the next food delivery.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

Upon arrival in Houma, we met members of the Cajun Navy, transferred the food, and returned to Hammond to drop off the empty totes. Unfortunately, the weather was moving in on us from the West, and the return trip to Hammond had us dodging rain and thunderstorms.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

We were able to carry out nine empty totes to be used again. Fire Demon 1 can really carry some cargo.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

After leaving the empty containers in Hammond, we departed for Columbus, Georgia, to spend the night. The following day we would make the rest of the flight back to Raleigh.

We flew in a total of 1,500 hot meals that were distributed to people in need.

Hurricane Ida Relief Flights To Feed Victims

What Could Have Gone Better:

Any suggestions I might have to improve the situation are items that were beyond our control. However, I believe we did the absolute best we could with the situation and resources at hand.

I feel confident the operation was conducted in a challenging situation with good Aeronautical Decision Making, Risk Management Analysis, and exceptional teamwork and communication.

Flight Video:

Video captured from the airplane, FIRE DEMON 1 in-flight shows the general flight area.

Recommendations From Flight:  

Continue training flights and patrols to continue sharpening our skills and opportunities to assist.

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