Ready, set, fly: DART volunteers prepare for disaster

An important part of the mobilization exercise was the end-of-day debrief, where volunteers reviewed the exercises as a team and discussed what was effective, what was not effective, and how DART could improve the process.

Early on the morning of Nov. 9, 21 Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART) volunteers came together at the South County Airport in San Martin to conduct a live training exercise, practicing to support simulated emergency airlift operations. After receiving text messages alerting them to report to the South County Airport, volunteers set up a secure operating area, received simulated “emergency supplies,” weighed and assembled loads, moved loads to eight private aircraft – seven light propeller planes and one light helicopter. Pilots then fired up the engines and successfully completed nine simulated supply missions by noon, accomplishing the day’s goals:
• to exercise and improve the airlift operational procedures developed by the DART team,
• to train DART volunteers and improve the team’s ability to respond quickly and effectively in a real emergency
• to demonstrate the volunteer transport of materiel and passengers in general aviation (also known as Part 91) operations
• and to prove an actual mutual aid delivery to a nearby community airport – in this case, a small package delivered to Watsonville airport, some 15 miles to the west on the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains.
The South County Airport Pilots Association has worked for the past several years to create a Disaster Airlift Response Team to aid local communities and the greater Bay Area during disasters that disrupt transportation. These “general aviation minuteman” volunteers train to be ready to transport supplies, equipment and personnel within hours of a catastrophic event.
“With earthquakes and other calamitous events, it’s not a matter of if a bad one will happen here, but when,” said Ken Hulick, volunteer for the Morgan Hill Office of Emergency Services. “At that time, depending on the degree of failure of regional transportation systems, a capability like this could be a godsend to our local emergency services efforts.”
Volunteers were essential following the Loma Prieta Earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989.
“I participated in the volunteer airlift that assisted the people of Watsonville during the first days after the earthquake,” said Rod Pharis, the “father” of DART. “The Santa Cruz area was cut off from the outside world and in desperate need of emergency supplies, and the Watsonville airport was the closest available means to get supplies into the most heavily damaged area. … Afterward, I realized we could have been more effective if a disaster airlift organization had already been in place ready to act immediately following a disaster, with established connections to local pilots, mutual aid, and emergency services organizations. That’s what we’re doing with DART.”
Pharis and DART Co-Chair Paul Marshall felt locally-based general aviation could serve the community in support of first responders. The Board of Directors of the South County Airport Pilots Association supported the vision and commissioned them to create the Disaster Airlift Response Team.
As the exercise Saturday proved, a small and growing capability now exists to quickly coordinate with emergency services to identify needs, to mobilize resources and to call upon mutual aid relationships at other airports.
For further information, contact David Dindak at [email protected]

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