Volunteer flights provide critical lifeline in aftermath of Hurricane Florence


Raleigh-Durham Airport apron

The prolonged onslaught from Hurricane Florence on the Carolinas left several communities cut off from ground transportation, making general aviation – including business aviation – a vital lifeline for getting desperately needed supplies through to multiple locations devastated by the storm.

Extensive flooding led to approximately 1,600 road closures across North Carolina as Florence loitered for days over the state, with all roads and rail networks to the coastal city of Wilmington cut off completely, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

However, despite widespread power outages and other localized damage, nearly all of the state’s 62 airports were back up and running shortly after the worst of Florence passed through. “As far as transportation, general aviation was it for many areas for several days,” said NCDOT Director of Aviation Bobby Walston.

In particular, Walston noted “an unprecedented level of activity” at Raleigh-Durham International Airport as Operation Airdrop, an all-volunteer network of general aviation and business aviation pilots established last year in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, set up its primary distribution centre inside Raleigh’s general aviation terminal.

“Donated supplies came in from all over the place, along with planes of all sizes flown by private pilots, owner/operators and companies,” said Walston, who witnessed the breadth and complexity of the volunteer operations from his office at the airport. “Joe Gibbs Racing flew in their [Bombardier] CRJ700 and told them, ‘fill it up and we’ll fly it where it’s needed.’”

According to Operation Airdrop, through Sept. 26 more than 400 pilots had volunteered to deliver approximately 300,000 pounds of supplies, ranging from diapers and personal care items to bottled water and electrical generators. “Their efforts were able to cut through a lot of red tape and get supplies to where they were needed most, all without compromising low-altitude operations like search-and-rescue flights,” Walston noted.

“Most people may think they’re just sleepy little airfields without a lot of apparent value, but in times like this they’re priceless.”