Hurricane Maria Relief Flight to Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria Relief Flight to Puerto Rico

October 2017

Following in Hurricane Irmaís footsteps, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico during the early morning hours of September 20, 2017 as a Category 4 storm packing sustained winds of 155 mph. Maria was the most powerful storm to hit the island in almost 90 years and caused massive flooding and severe damage to the islandís infrastructure, homes and businesses. Almost 100% of the island was without power in the wake of the storm, with officials predicting that it would be six months before power was fully restored. In addition, more than 50% of the islandís residents were without safe drinking water and communications were severely hampered by the destruction of most of the cellphone towers.

The island was in desperate need of help and, while relief supplies began arriving within days, distribution was hampered by roads blocked by flooding and debris along with a critical shortage of truck drivers. Supplies arriving by ship and air were piling up at San Juanís port and international airport, unable to reach the residents that so desperately needed them. Miami Lakes based Conquest Air Cargo operates three former military C-131 aircraft throughout the Caribbean and it turned out that the Convairs were an ideal aircraft to provide fast and efficient delivery of critical supplies to Puerto Rico and other islands affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The Convairs are operated under FAR Part 135, which restricts loads to 7,500 pounds and skeptics had scoffed at the idea that these aircraft could be operated profitably when Conquest introduced them a few years ago. Conquest owners had faith in the Convairs and they have proven to be very successful on daily scheduled Bahama flights and perfect for the Puerto Rican relief flights.

While larger jet freighters operate under FAR Part 121 and can carry much larger payloads, they can only operate into Puerto Ricoís larger airports such as San Juan International, which already had a backlog of undelivered cargo. Carrying a payload of 7,500 pounds, the Convairs were able to fly non-stop from Opa-locka Airport and to San Juanís Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci/Isla Grande Executive Airport. The airport is San Juanís original commercial airport and, with its short 5,539 foot runway, is unable to accommodate the larger jet aircraft. Avoiding the bottleneck at San Juan International, Conquest was able to offer customers point-to-point service, where cargo would arrive at Opa-locka Airport, be loaded onto one of the Convairs and be in the customerís possession in as little as six hours. As expected, this was very attractive to a wide variety of customers and Conquest has been flying as many as three relief flights a day to Puerto Rico, with occasion flights to other hurricane affected islands such as Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On Monday October 2nd, I flew on Conquest Air Cargo C-131F/CV340 N345GS 'Alice' from Opa-locka Executive Airport to Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport. The aircraft was carrying 7,500 pounds of relief supplies with a flight crew consisted of Captain Eduardo Blanco, First Office Christopher Russell and Flight Mechanic Richard Gomez. After departing Opa-lockaís runway 9L, we climbed at 500 feet per minute to a cruising altitude of 9,000 feet. Once reaching altitude, the Pratt & Whitney R2800 engines were fine tuned to 2,000 rpm and 30 inches MP, giving us a ground speed of about 175 knots. The flight to San Juan took a bit over five hours and we were almost diverted to San Juan International Airport due to a serious accident that was blocking the runway at our destination. A Cessna 182D that was landing had flipped over killing the pilot and seriously injuring the passenger. The airport is home to the Puerto Rican Army National Guard and we heard that rotor wash from either a helicopter or V-22 Osprey was a factor in the crash. Fortunately, at the last moment, Dominicci Airport opened and we were able to proceed to our original destination.
Dominicci Airport appeared to be fully operational with lots of civilian and military helicopter relief activity along with quite a few corporate jets landing and taking off. There was a lot of damage to the airport with siding missing from many of the buildings, fences knocked down and roofs missing, including the one on the Army National Guard hangar. Shortly after we parked, a box truck arrived but, since there was no fork lift available, the pallets of water, boxes and a generator had to be broken down and the contents loaded onto the truck by hand. 800+ gallons of avgas were pumped into the two wing tanks and at 5pm we departed for the return flight to Opa-locka.
Having offloaded her 7,500 pounds of cargo, the Convairís performance was a bit more spirited and, with the help of tail winds at 10,000 feet, our ground speed on the return trip was 205 knots. Blessed with smooth air and an amazing sunset on the flight home, we arrived back in Florida shortly before 10pm. It was a long and exhausting day for this old guy and I now have a real appreciation for the flight crews who are doing this day after day. In addition to the flight crews, mechanics, loading crews, office staff and company managers have been working seven days a week to assure that the much needed relief supplies continue to be delivered to where itís needed. Kudos to everyone involved.
As mentioned earlier, Conquest currently operates three former military C-131 aircraft that have been converted to freighters. The data plate on N345GS shows it served with the U.S. Navy as a C-131F and was converted to a civilian CV-340-71 on August 28, 2015. N343GS is also a former U.S. Navy C-131F, while N145GT served with the U.S. Air Force as a C-131B. C-131F N342GS is currently undergoing conversion to a freighter at Opa-locka Airport and is nearing completion. This aircraft transported former President Harry S. Truman to a 1961 speaking engagement in Las Vegas and is appropriately named 'Truman'. (Update: N145GT ditched into the Atlantic Ocean 13 miles off the east coast of Florida on February 8, 2019. The first officer was rescued but tragically the captain did not survive. For more information about the crash, check out the Aviation Safety Network website.)
Iíd like to extend thanks to my friends at Conquest Air Cargo for making the necessary arrangements allowing me to accompany the flight and to the flight crew for their hospitality during the flight. It was an experience that I wonít soon forget.

Ralph M. Pettersen
October 2017

Photo Credits: Ralph M. Pettersen

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----Created 1 March 2019----