Flying a Relief Flight to Haiti: A Life Changing Experience
Guest post by Brad Pierce
Earlier this year, I was browsing the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) website when I came across an intriguing post by Dr. Richard McGlaughlin (aka Doc McG). Doc McG is a fellow Cirrus pilot who’s been flying his plane to Haiti to volunteer for a week each month for the past several years. He’s well respected within our community and I always enjoy learning about the good work he does helping others. This particular post had a different premise than simply sharing his thoughts and experiences – he and Luke Lyson from The Flight Academy were looking to raise some money, buy some medical supplies, and enlist a group of volunteers to fly a relief mission to Haiti. He acknowledged that like with any great adventure, there would be risks. Those risks would be mitigated by including expert flight instructors, a mechanic with spares to handle aircraft issues, doctors to keep us healthy, and world-class weather briefings. While his entire post was inspiring, his conclusion was the most profound – “We will make sure you get down and back safely. You may not come back quite the same.” Those lines spoke to me, I knew at that moment, I would be joining the team of adventurers flying to Haiti. This article will chronicle our adventure to share a glimpse into what we saw, how we felt, and most importantly, to highlight the people we wanted to help by accomplishing this mission. You can view a larger image of any of the photos within this article by clicking on them.
On Sunday, June 30, 2013, myself and 31 other volunteers flew 15 aircraft to Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport (KFXE). $100,000 in medical supplies (thanks to generous donations from COPA members), plus school supplies, clothing, musical instruments, toys and other items were loaded into our airplanes which would be destined for Port-au-Prince, Haiti the following morning. We made our way over to a nearby hotel to meet for a dinner and to coordinate the mission as a group. Luke, John and Helen from The Flight Academy walked everyone through the FAA international flight plan filing procedure, eAPIS filing (for US Customs) and explained all the relevant details of our mission. Doc McG reached out on his cell phone to Chuck Watson (a fellow Cirrus pilot and a weather expert) who provided a detailed weather briefing as we gathered close to the phone listening intently. Bad news, the weather wasn’t going to be good. Our original departure time would likely put us into stormy weather, we’d need leave earlier than planned – shuttle buses would arrive beginning at 5:15am the next morning. I was quickly motivated to get some rest as I knew the next day would arrive way too soon.
July 1, 2013 – It’s “Go Time”. Myself and my fellow group of volunteers gathered at Banyan Air Service for the final morning briefing before departure. We were tired, but excitement and anticipation filled the room. One after another, all 15 airplanes (14 Cirrus Aircraft and 1 Eclipse Jet) lifted off into the rainy skies above South Florida headed towards Haiti. Our flight route took us down through the Bahamas past some of the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen. Along the way, the Nexrad weather radar coverage on our airplane multi-function displays dropped out which was expected. Normally, we’d be flying ahead into unknown conditions, but not today – we had Chuck the weather expert on speed dial. I spoke to Chuck from my on-board Iridium satellite phone and received up-to-date weather information which I relayed to the group via an air-to-air radio frequency we were utilizing for communication. The Eclipse Jet flew high above the rest of the group relaying their bird’s eye view as well which was very helpful. Everything was working perfectly – the planes, the pilots, the weather insights – it was truly an experience in flying a mission coordinated with military precision.
A few short hours later, we safely landed at Toussaint Louverture International Airport (MTPP) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My view of the world was about to change and I didn’t even realize it yet. Our planes were unloaded and the supplies were whisked away, one step closer to getting into the hands of those in need. The process of getting through customs, immigration, re-fueling aircraft and the airport in general took hours as they’re not accustom to a squadron of small planes arriving simultaneously. Just as predicted, the skies opened up as we left the airport to board buses, leaving each of us hot and drenched. I’d later realize that a little bit of rain to us was an annoyance, whereas to residents in this devastated country, rain can be deadly as it spreads disease and floods roads, it’s all about perspective.
The first part of our bus journey took us into the heart of Cité Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve never in my life seen any place like it. I’ve never even imagined living conditions could be so bad for so many people. I was in shock, I think it’s safe to say everyone in our group was too. Some of the roads were littered with piles of trash and debris stacked so high we had to turn around and take alternate routes or drive on the sidewalk. Potholes filled the streets, some of which were several feet deep and would have brought us to an abrupt halt. We were traveling down one road and boulders blocked our path. A group of individuals approached the buses and my blood pressure hit an all time high. I felt like this was the perfect setup for an ambush in an area known for kidnappings. This was the first act of kindness I witnessed – here we are in a horrible slum, approached by numerous unknown individuals – and what did they do? They helped the drivers navigate around the boulders to get us on our way safely. They were good people who were born into living in a rough place, lesson learned.
We approached our first stop, St. Mary’s Hospital, Star of the Sea, located in Cité Soleil. As we drove down the dirt road leading to the hospital, I looked out the window at a wide open field where shacks once stood. It was filled with rocks and other debris. There was a little boy sitting on the ground, alone, playing with rocks in the rain. It was heartbreaking. I literally get tears in my eyes just thinking about the image that’s engrained in my head. The image above on the left side shows that sweet little boy playing. He couldn’t have been more than a few years old, so innocent and so unaware that the things in life that are “normal” to him are unimaginable to others. The good news is he has a chance in life, thanks to the amazing folks at the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti. The foundation is led by Father Rick Frechette who greeted us with a warm, welcoming smile as we got off the buses. Father Rick is truly inspiring, where other people see hopelessness, he sees hope and opportunity to change lives and make the world a better place. This guy doesn’t know the meaning of the word impossible. He lives by the mantra, “Do the next right thing, and something good will come of it. Next day, do it again.” As I listened to him speak, children came running to greet us, we were quickly surrounded by loving children. These children were smiling, energetic and very excited to interact with us. We took a walk through the village built by St. Luke, women and children walking alongside of us. It was a scene I’ve seen so many times in pictures and on television, only this time I was living it. We toured the houses that had been built, and more that were under construction to replace even more shacks soon to be torn down. We walked through the streets, the children were smiling and seemed full of life. Many of them had torn clothing, several had no clothes at all. This was one of many moments on the trip that I’ll carry with me throughout my life. I was amazed by their happiness, I know they live a tough life, but for that moment, they were smiling and happy as they shared a view of their world with us.
Our walked continued into the hospital itself to view the facility. Doc McG showed us a digital x-ray machine he’d previously delivered to the hospital. Unfortunately it wasn’t working however due to being hit by a recent electrical surge caused by frequent unstable power. The room was lined in a silver material for insulation along with a small portable air conditioner since they needed to maintain a climate-controlled environment for the machine to work properly. This was the only part of the hospital with any air conditioning at all. The rest of the hospital was hot and dark, yet the staff members were cheerful and caring as they attended to patients. We also took a tour of another part of the hospital which housed Cholera patients. Before entering and after leaving, we had to wash our hands and shoes in chlorinated water. Anyone who’s ever visited a medical facility in the US is familiar with sanitation practices that normally involve running water, soap, a sink and towels. In this case, there was simply a large tank of chlorinated water that dripped into a tray on the ground surrounded by dirt – a make-shift sanitation station of sorts. We spent some more time with the kids before leaving the facility. I vividly remember watching two small children interact with one of the members of our group. They posed for close-up pictures, then immediately would grab the camera to tilt it down to see images of themselves on the screen, giggling the entire time. They loved it, it was a very special thing to see them experiencing such joy in seeing something like a digital picture that we take for granted. Soon, a larger group of children joined in the picture taking and viewing fun. Those children and the others around them brought the first smile to my face since I entered the country. I was on a roller coaster of emotions, so touched by their smiles and kindness, so sad knowing that in a few minutes we’d be leaving them behind. As we drove away from the facility, many of them followed behind the buses, chasing us down the driveway waving and continuing their unforgettable smiles.
The next few hours were spent driving throughout Haiti. The rain was fierce which led to even more flooding and chaos on the roads. Cars, trucks and buses packed tightly together led to one traffic jam after the next. We frequently had to turn around and take alternate routes as there simply was no way to get down some of the streets. I looked out the window at the people, fascinated by their make-shift shops often times consisting of nothing more than a basket or wheelbarrow filled with goods to sell. They were sitting in puddles, in the dirt, on the street, anywhere there was a few feet of open space you’d see someone or a group of people gathering. I knew the whole city couldn’t be this bad, but to my dismay, it was – these people live in what can only be described as horrible conditions. It is hell on earth. Words, pictures, videos – none of those things even come remotely close to describing the horrible things that I saw throughout this journey.
Just as I fell back into my emotional slump feeling these people didn’t stand a chance, Doc McG lifted my spirits again with a visit to St. Damien Pediatric Hospital. Upon driving through the front gates, I knew this was a very special place. The grass was green, there were animal sculptures on the lawn, this was a place where children could feel safe, secure and comfortable while getting much needed care. Our tour started on the rooftop, from there we could look out over the city. It’s there that we re-grouped with Wynn Walent who’s an individual that’s been heavily involved with St. Luke for years. He’s a young guy who’s an eloquent speaker that can tell you everything and anything you can imagine about the facilities, people, city, culture, building, everything. You name it – this guy knows the answer. He’s been personally involved in making many of the good things happen in Haiti and was an inspiration to us all. We stood on the rooftop as he led us through a fascinating discussion pointing out items of interest throughout the area. We continued our tour of the hospital which included a room that served as an orphanage. That’s the only place some of the children there have ever known their entire lives. As I stood in the doorway, a very young boy picked up a shoe and threw it to me as he smiled. I picked it up and threw it back, landing by his feet. He picked it up and threw it towards me again as he giggled. A quick little game of catch with our improvised ball, just enough to send that roller coaster of emotions back to an all-time high again as I saw the joy he was experiencing. We then proceeded to meet up with Father Rick again at his office and stayed to chat for a while. The more time I spend around this guy, the more amazed I become. He’s just radiates positive energy, I clung to every word that he spoke. He’s a dreamer and a doer who I admire greatly. We still had a busy evening ahead, so the buses departed once again for a short jaunt through the busy streets of Port-au-Prince.
Our next stop was to tour St. Luc Family Hospital. This is the home of Doc McG’s Gastroenterology lab he built that’s become part of his legacy of giving in Haiti. We took a full tour of the hospital campus which was unbelievable. Here we are in the middle of a third world country and there’s a fully functioning hospital complete with an intensive care unit and operating rooms. It’s incredible to think of all the effort that went into building such capable facilities where they’re able to treat conditions that previously would have been death sentences. All of our group was hot, tired and hungry, so we left St. Luc and headed towards the organization’s hotel where we’d be spending the night.
Our accommodations were modern structures which were clean and well-kept. There was no air conditioning, but I don’t think any of us cared – after seeing the unthinkable living conditions experienced by others throughout the day, I was just thankful to have a roof over my head. We were told these buildings replaced tents that previously stood in their place. The hotel had a small kitchen and a gathering shelter where we could all spend time together chatting. We felt safe and secure behind the tall walls and found comfort knowing we had an armed guard out front. We took a quick jaunt across the street for dinner at a restaurant also run by the local people within the organization. Several people spoke including Father Rick, Wynn Walent, and Jim Corcoran who joined us for the meal. Once again, I was mesmerized by every word each of these wonderful individuals shared with us. We learned how the organization employs people to work at the facility to make pasta, peanut butter, medical oxygen, cement blocks, bread and more. They subsidize the cost of these items so that people can sell them to the poor, making a profit and working towards becoming self-sufficient. This was a real-world implementation of the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I was amazed, truly amazed and proud to be spending time with these remarkable people.
We returned to our hotel and spent hours chatting under the common shelter. We were sharing our thoughts about the things we’d seen and experienced throughout the day. Our group of 32 strangers had become good friends already as if we’d known one another our whole lives. We talked, told stories, learned more about the great programs and initiatives in the area from Doc McG, it was a perfect relaxing evening. The hotel had WiFi so we were all able to check the weather and plan our flights for the following morning. Around midnight, I retired to my assigned room, exhausted and still sweaty from the long day and intense heat. This was my first experience ever sleeping with a bug net over the bed which was a bit annoying, but beat the alternative of possibly being bit by malaria carrying insects. I didn’t sleep well, I had too much on my mind to process. I was overwhelmed with emotion, saddened by the things I’d seen, yet inspired by the acts of kindness and good work that’s been done to change the country for the better.
The following morning started early once again. We had a funeral to attend for several individuals who passed away the prior day. We loaded up in the back of pickup trucks by 6:45am and were off to Mass. Wynn prepared us for the service by mentioning that the people were likely to get loud and emotional. I’ve been to plenty of funerals in my life, I thought I was prepared mentally and emotionally, I was wrong. We walked into the small church containing walls packed with mourners sitting on a small bench that lined the room. In the center of the room, there lay several deceased individuals wrapped up in towels. As we walked past the bodies and practically stepped over them on the way in, my heart sank. This was unlike anything I’d ever experienced – that seems to be a recurring theme throughout this journey. The mass was held in what I suspect was Creole language so I couldn’t understand what was being said, but it was beautifully done none-the-less. Emotions ran high, both for each of us and for the mourners. I felt my eyes start to water, using all of my might to hold back the tears. My emotional roller coaster was once again taking a steep dive. I hit my lowest point when the singing began, loud cries and emotional yelling rang out from the mourners as the bodies were lifted from the floor to depart for their graves. Father Rick and his team had done this way too many times before. They were poised and professional, continuing their singing as they respected the dead giving them an honorable burial. We walked from the church alongside the bodies being placed onto the back of a truck to be driven around back to the burial site. I looked into the eyes of several members of our group, everyone was stone cold, completely in shock from the experience we’d just shared. There were no smiles, no laughter, no celebration of life, this was a sad and emotional morning for us all. We spent some more time with the staff at the adjacent hospital and said our farewells before departing.
I felt like we’d been in Haiti for weeks as we drove towards the airport for our departure, in reality we’d only been on the ground in this devastated country for less than 24 hours. We’d visited so many places, seen so many things, experienced so many emotions, there was so much packed into that short period of time. The experiences were occurring in such rapid succession my mind couldn’t keep up with processing all that I was feeling. Soon we arrived back at the airport to begin our journey home. We’d be flying 3.5 hours back to Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport (KFXE) across the Bahamian waters once again.
I lined up my Cirrus SR22 Aircraft at the end of Runway 10 and slowly pushed the throttle forward. In a matter of seconds my wheels were lifting off the ground and I was soaring high above the city. I watched and listened as my fellow pilots lifted off from the airport as well, one after another. As I gazed down upon the city below, it looked like a nice, normal, clean city from a few thousand feet above. From my viewpoint, you’d never know there were horrendous living conditions lurking below. I was squarely focused on flying safely, yet felt saddened and guilty to be leaving this land behind. They still need so much help and have such a tough journey ahead to break free from living a life of poverty. Yet, I also thought about Father Rick, Wynn, Jim, and the other great folks who were still there on the ground, doing the great work they do every single day to make a difference – doing the next right thing. That brought a smile to my face knowing there was hope for the future of these resilient people.
The flight back to Ft. Lauderdale was largely uneventful. We flew in close proximity to one another throughout the journey. I was the lead plane so I provided weather updates and tactical storm dodging information to the others. My fellow aviators are all skilled and competent pilots, but sometimes it’s nice to have a heads up whether the clouds ahead are going to be rough and turbulent or smooth sailing. The Eclipse Jet was a bit behind leaving later than the rest of the group, but caught up quickly and provided valuable insights regarding storm activity and cloud tops. A line of strong thunderstorms blocked our path but we developed a plan and were able to circumnavigate the threats. Roughly three and a half hours after lift-off, the wheels of my Cirrus Aircraft safely touched down on the runway back in the United States. By my flying standards, it was a short trip, yet it felt like a world away from the place where I’d been. Lights, air conditioning, running water, food, medical care, all of the things we take for granted were in abundance once again. The Customs and Border staff were friendly and accommodating, clearing each plane and passengers back into the United States quickly. Our journey was complete. We had successfully returned to where we began this adventure, safe and sound, just like Doc McG promised.
In the beginning of this post I mentioned Doc McG’s quote, “You may not come back quite the same.” Doc McG was right. My life and how I view the world has been changed forever.
You can learn more about St. Luke Foundation for Haiti by visiting their website at http://www.stlukehaiti.org.
You can also view an inspirational video featuring Fr. Rick and many of the places we visited:
Special thanks to all who made this amazing life experience possible: Dr. Richard McGlaughlin, Luke Lyson and his team from The Flight Academy (John Fiscus and Helen Cernik), Chuck Watson for providing weather updates, Jim Barker from Aviation Resources, Father Rick Frechette, Wynn Walent, Jim Corcoran, Nathalie Colas, the staff and volunteers at St. Luke Foundation for Haiti, Banyan Air Service, the generous COPA donors who provided financial resources, my fellow adventurers, and the brave pilots who flew everyone to Haiti and back home safely. God bless you all and God bless the people of Haiti.