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General Aviation Community Supports Oklahoma Tornado-Relief Efforts

May 24, 2013

When devastating tornados struck towns throughout south-central Oklahoma on May 20, the business aviation community stood ready to assist with the relief and rebuilding effort. While government officials have advised NBAA and industry-relief groups that a full-scale emergency response is not required at this time, NBAA Members and others in the general aviation community have still taken steps to assist storm victims.

In the hours following the tornado’s strike on the communities of Moore and Newcastle, OK, general aviation disaster relief organization AERObridge coordinated a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to transport a pallet of communication equipment from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Oklahoma City. The organization is now gathering supplies to send into the stricken area.

"We're essentially operating the second wave right now, supporting the first responders and getting supplies such as blankets, clothing, and food items into the area," said AERObridge’s Alan Staat. “I truly appreciate the generosity we’ve seen from NBAA Members during this crisis, and in our past efforts.”

Additionally, the Sky Hope Network, which coordinates relief missions utilizing business aircraft, has pledged to distribute all monies donated to the organization through June 1, 2013 directly to Oklahoma storm victims. Representatives with both organizations add that, although full-scale activation of their respective networks has not been required so far, they stand ready to assist with additional operations if needed.

GA pilots have also volunteered their time and aircraft. Personnel at University of Oklahoma’s Westheimer Airport (OUN) – which was not damaged by the storm, despite its location less than five nautical miles from the primary storm track – report they have received calls throughout the week from pilots asking if the field is open to relief flights.

Offers to assist with the relief effort have also been posted to the NBAA Air Mail Forum, the Association's Members-only social network for collaboration and discussion on topics of interest to business aircraft operators. Air Mail has served this useful role during past crises, including Hurricane Katrina and ‘Superstorm’ Sandy last year, by linking volunteer pilots and organizations with those requesting assistance.

NBAA also offers a means for the industry to be prepared to assist when disasters strike. Operators are encouraged to add their names to the Association’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Operator (HERO) Database, a list of people in the business aviation community who are part of disaster-response mobilization efforts. Basic information from the database is provided to organizations coordinating relief efforts following major crises.

Although emergency relief organizations, including FEMA and the Red Cross, have told NBAA and industry relief organizations that the business aviation community’s resources are not needed in Oklahoma at this time, the assets in the HERO database could be put needed for future disaster-relief efforts.

GA Also on the Front Lines of the Storm

Of course, the role of general aviation in the Oklahoma City tragedy wasn’t limited to disaster relief efforts. As the twister bore down, KFOR-4 news helicopter pilot Jon Welsh and his camera operator provided a real-time aerial account of the storm’s progression through Moore.

In a KFOR interview Monday evening, Welsh recounted his conscious effort to maintain his composure on the air. “That emotion is visible, even if it's just your voice,” he noted. “The calmer I can be, the calmer everyone else can be."

"I've never seen video like that before," said NBAA Member Greg Sumner, who like many in the country watched the event unfold on national news channels streaming KFOR's feed. “He knew the street intersections, and anyone watching this coverage knew where the funnel cloud might probably head next. At the same time, he had to maintain a hover as the tornado was pulling the helicopter towards the storm.”

Welsh also noted that he and other helicopter pilots were awaiting permission to fly again, using helicopters equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) technology to search for survivors trapped underneath storm debris.