EDITOR'S NOTE: Robin Zimmer is executive director of the Center for Truth Discovery, a part of ProVision Foundation, and he's an elder at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. He was aboard one of the two planes that brought six Haitian orphans to Knoxville last month. He's written this first-hand account.
Atlanta Air Traffic Control Center has just passed us off to Knoxville approach.
We confirm our intentions, confirm that we have heard the automated weather brief for McGhee Tyson Airport, and we are soon passed off to the tower.
It is Saturday, Jan. 23, and we are cleared to land on runway 5 right. The King Air 200 is slowed, flaps are deployed and the landing gear grinds down with all 3 green indicator lights aglow in the cockpit (gear down and locked).
We have already called TACAir, the fixed based operator for general aviation in Knoxville to inform them that we are inbound with some VIPs.
Behind the cockpit bulkhead sit 3 Haitian orphans, Wousamy Bates, Odette Coleman and Islande Stout, their new parents and a news camerawomen from WBIR TV. Three additional orphans also from the Cog Chant orphanage in Haiti and their parents are ahead of us in a Falcon jet donated by Pilot Corp.
Little did we know of the reception awaiting us at TACAir. Two hundred teary-eyed friends and family from White Stone Church as well as the local news media jammed the airport's small general aviation reception lounge.
This event had such an effect on me that I feel compelled to pass on some notes of my "front seat view" of the entire process and my thoughts on its significance.
I suppose I should begin by stating that if you ever questioned your belief in an omnipotent and loving God, I wish you could have ridden along with us on this little adventure. Suffice it to say, your doubts would have been put to rest.
It all began on the tarmac at McGhee Tyson. It was Tuesday late afternoon, Jan. 19, and I was about to climb into the right co-pilot's seat of a twin turbo King Air captained by Mr. Adrian Van Zyl, a South African born pro with over 16,000 hours of total flight time.
Behind us sat three medical doctors, an EMT, a pastor and a special forces trained security guy. In addition to the eight souls on board, hundreds of pounds of medical supplies, water, food and donated clothes were stuffed into the cargo area.
Given the fuel, people and supplies, this was one heavy airplane rolling out for take-off in Knoxville.
First stop - Ft. Lauderdale's Executive airport, where we would stay the night and leave early the following morning. By 6 a.m., everyone was back on board for the 2 hour direct flight to Providenciales in the British West Indies.
Provo, as it is commonly called, is an ideal staging area for private flights into and out of Haiti. Since re-fueling in Haiti would not be possible, we needed to go in carrying enough for a round trip back out to Provo.
The folks at Provo Flight Center could not have been more accommodating or nicer. Locals stuffed the reception lounge with bottled water, fruit, cookies, hard boiled eggs and PB&J sandwiches for flight crews, medical personnel and Haitian refugees. While we were getting our paperwork in order and confirmed, a New York gentleman offered 80 large tents for transport into Haiti. At 40 pounds a piece, Capt. Adrian and I exchanged looks as we both knew we were already pushing "gross takeoff weight."
But the Captain glanced down and simply said, "We just can't let those kids spend another night without some sort of cover."
We jammed two tents and poles on-board and prepared for takeoff to Jacmel on the south coast of Haiti. It is important to understand that since the quake, all Haiti airspace was officially closed and only airplanes with pre-approved "landing slots" or fly over approval could enter.
Adrian Van Zyl and his RTG Mission Flights had already gotten full approval for our flight into the non-towered airport of Jacmel and its 3,400 foot long landing strip.
I was about to learn a lot about international relief flying from this guy……..an awful lot.
En route from Provo, we passed directly over Port au Prince and directly through this airspace by Haiti traffic control. We listened intently as aircraft bound for Port au Prince were being instructed to enter stacked holding patterns with expectations of 1 to 2 hour delays prior to receiving landing clearance. Jacmel was just to the south over a significant mountain range.
In addition to mountainous terrain, Jacmel airport was non-towered and had no lights or instrument approach capabilities. If the runway is not clearly visible, no approach and no landing - simple as that.
But it just so happened that the weather was clear, ceiling high and we were able to approach for a southerly landing (180<0x00B0> on the compass).
The only problem was that in addition to no tower, there was no common traffic frequency to communicate with other aircraft and the place was abuzz with military helicopters and other fixed wing aircraft, all with intentions to take-off or land.
Prudently, we circled the small field three times while Adrian and I glued our eyes for other traffic.
Cockpit chatter was succinct and all business: "Cessna at 2 o'clock…..got him? Navy chopper just lifted off coming our way…..got him? Got the radio tower at 4 o'clock? How 'bout the Caravan level with us at 9 o'clock?"
This intense cockpit dialogue went on as we lowered and raised our gear to signal our intentions. Such action was our only means of communicating our intentions at this very small field nestled right up into mountainous foothills to the north and the turquoise Caribbean waters a hundred meters off the runway to the south.
We landed, off-loaded the incoming team and cargo and quickly returned to Provo. The plane's insurer made it clear………..no overnight parking on Haitian soil. After passing through customs at Provo in the British West Indies, Adrian and I enjoyed a few cold beers and maybe the best conch chowder ever made.
We discussed the need to come back down and pick up six orphans stranded in Jacmel and how the paperwork for entry into the U.S. would probably take another week or maybe more. What a shame we could not get them sooner.
Adrian also explained how he crashed a plane into a mountain in South Africa many years ago following engine failure and that he was not expected to live. In fact, the doctors informed his family that there was simply no chance for recovery. He was comatose for months and spent three years in the hospital and rehab.
I asked him if perhaps, just perhaps, God pulled him through because years later he would be called upon for a special mission to pick up six orphans from a remote little landing strip in a place called Jacmel, Haiti.
"That may very well be," he conceded with a smile, and we both retired early for a good night's rest before leaving for home on Thursday morning.
On Thursday the 21st, we departed Provo and flew directly back into Ft. Lauderdale Executive airport to pass through customs and re-fuel for the trip back to Knoxville. A quick check of the weather radar showed a solid line of really bad weather laying across most of the panhandle of Florida and extending offshore past Jacksonville.
This violent weather (red and yellows on the radar) lay directly in our flight path and alerts were being broadcast to include altitudes of over 50,000 feet. Just too high to go over and just too expansive to go around…….we were stuck and were not going anywhere until the weather blew off and out to sea.
There was just no way the storm would linger and block our route home any more than an hour or so. It would have to keep moving northeast and out of our way. Two hours later, and we were amazed when the radar indicated the storm had stalled and would remain an impenetrable road block for quite some time.
It just so happened that this extraordinary weather delay was just enough time for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's office to finish up paperwork for the orphans and for Kevin Rudd to call from White Stone Church in Knoxville and ask if there was any way possible to return to Haiti (Jacmel) and pick up the six kids.
Kevin would fly commercial late that night after the storm finally cleared and meet us in Ft. Lauderdale to join us for the pick-up in Haiti. If the weather was clear in North Florida or simply not as expansive in size, Adrian and I would have already been en route to Knoxville and we would have missed Kevin's urgent late afternoon request.
We checked into a couple of hotel rooms near the airport and rested for a few hours before returning around 4:30 AM for the return to Provo and Jacmel for the kids. Kevin Rudd met us at the plane and we were airborne by 5:30.
After picking up fuel in Provo and checking papers and flight plans, it was time to make our way back into Jacmel.
Kevin was in touch with our team collecting the kids at the orphanage, and we stressed that the kids would have to be waiting at the airport for our arrival. We would have no time to wait because a very difficult and stressful flight into Port au Prince (PaP) would follow the pick up in Jacmel.
In order for the kids to be cleared for passage into the U.S. under the "Humanitarian Parole" program, papers would need to be picked up at the U.S. Embassy in PaP with the kids present on the ground.
While preparing for departure out of Provo, local community members wanted their ages and relative sizes so that they could buy and collect clothes and arrange for overnight accommodations once we got them out of PaP with proper papers.
The three of us departed Provo with full fuel knowing there would be no re-fueling in Haiti. Moreover, weather reports over the southern coast of Haiti were not available and we knew the only way in was under "VFR" (Visual Flight Rules). In other words, we had to be able to fully see the approaching Jacmel runway, otherwise the evacuation would be aborted.
We again crossed the Haitian border from the north over Cap Haitian, and just as we flew over the mountains, it just so happened that the little Jacmel airstrip was in full view.
We could not believe our eyes.
I glanced down at our GPS unit and at a distance of 35.4 miles, the tiny white airstrip was virtually aglow in the center of our windscreen. There awaiting our arrival were six orphans ranging in age from 7 to 12 who had never seen or experienced anything outside their meager Haitian living conditions.
Thanks to the seasoned veteran in the left seat, the landing was unremarkable and there at the end of the runway stood 6 tiny figures huddled closely together while clutching torn baby dolls. Whatever this significant life change would bring, they would face it together drawing courage from one another.
We loaded them and strapped them in as quickly as possible and reviewed the takeoff checklist. Given the takeoff weight of the 6 kids, 2 adult caretakers, the 2 of us in the cockpit and a liberal amount of fuel, every inch of the short strip was used.
The end of the strip was marked by a crowded road, hundreds of partially collapsed corrugated huts and palm trees which seem to have been strategically placed to snag landing gears. We cleared them at a level close enough to see facial details of the Haitians staring up with pitiful expressions of hopeless desperation.
These were the thousands being left behind.
Again, we carried a great deal of fuel with the expectation of an hour or more holding over Port au Prince - our destination to meet with the U.S. Embassy.
Although we had a landing slot into Haiti, we fully expected very complicated approach instructions from Port au Prince tower and a long holding pattern prior to entry. It is Friday and if we cannot get to the U.S. Embassy before it closes at 4:30 PM or so. we will be stranded with these children and no place to go. Without proper U.S. Embassy papers, we cannot take them to Provo - a British Colony and we cannot take them into the U.S.
Also, with no landing lights behind us at Jacmel, a return to the orphanage is out of the question.
To put things into perspective, approximately 1,400 aircraft from around the world are trying to enter into Haiti airspace and land at Port au Prince.
A total of 120 to 140 per day actually get cleared to land.
With charts open across our laps and pens poised for holding instructions, we called Port au Prince tower and announced that we were inbound from Jacmel.
The tower immediately responded: "King Air two one Delta Echo cleared to land runway 10."
Adrian and I looked at each other in total disbelief.
"Did he say we are cleared to land, as in like right now?"
The tower had no idea of two one Delta Echo's urgent appointment and the need to get these kids processed. Of the hundreds of aircraft touching down into Port au Prince since the quake, very few, if any at all, have been given straight in landing clearances. The odds against such an occurrence seem astronomical.
I turned and starred back into the cabin and thought: "These kids must truly be VIPs, but whose VIPs?"
I think I had my answer.
"Seat belts all on?" I asked.
I was greeted with smiles that would have lit up a stage production.
Upon landing, we were directed to park on the grass adjacent to the main taxi-way by U.S. National Guard personnel.
It struck me that the PaP airport looked very much like a war theatre. Military transports, helicopters, troops, land troop carriers punctuated the entire field. Supplies were being off-loaded from fixed wing C-5s and stacked in the infield for subsequent transport into down town Port au Prince via military trucks and cargo choppers.
Now, I am simply not smart enough to know why this quake happened, but the response to it in the form of aid was on a scale that was overwhelming and virtually incomprehensible.
Is it possible that God was announcing: "The Haitians are my people and this is my army. Enough is enough and we are coming in mass from around the globe to assist, care for and provide relief for my beleaguered children in Haiti."
I must say, of all the nations engaged in this conflict, it was pretty clear that America was leading the charge. What a proud moment to see the U.S. in its usual leadership role.
To all the geopolitical second-guessers around the world, make no mistake - like many other natural catastrophes, the U.S. was first in and will probably again be the last out while employing more aid resources than all other nations combined.
We off-loaded the kids and tucked them under the shade of the wing while Kevin Rudd and 2 others ran off to the US Embassy to procure final paperwork. We waited for just over 5 hours watching the coordinated air ballet around us.
What a show.
U.S. Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard, Red Cross and planes from dozens of other nations all working in concert for "Haiti Relief."
Five hours in the hot sun is almost too much to ask most kids, but not these. They napped, waved at taxiing flight crews and sat quietly displaying a genuine air of appreciation for all that was being done.
How could these little kids be this good for so long in the hot sun?
The answer: Unlike most, if not all, of us in the developed world, they carried no expectations, no demands and had no assets at risk other than the clothes on their backs and their very lives. They were simply waiting patiently for their new life in a land they had never seen or experienced.
What a lesson for us all.
Departing Port au Prince around 4:30, we shot over to Provo for fuel, a nice dinner and a good night's rest.
Saturday would be the final leg into the U.S. Arrival into the Ft. Lauderdale Executive airport was uneventful and as we taxied up to the U.S. Customs office, I noticed that at least one new parent for each child was waiting outside the fence cheering and crying at the same time.
The U.S. Customs officials in Ft. Lauderdale could not have been nicer, but it took quite some time to get all 6 kids' paperwork properly submitted. At one point, I leaned over to sip from a water fountain on the wall in the Customs office and I noticed at least 3 pairs of little eyes staring in wonderment with mouths agape.
It suddenly dawned on me that they had never seen such a box that provided clear, clean cold water simply by depressing a button.
When rain water cisterns were dry in Haiti, these kids would walk 2 hours to fill up 5 gallon buckets from a stream and carry them balanced on their heads for the 2-hour walk back to the orphanage.
What an acclimation awaited them. They were about to taste the wonderment of a rich civilization and freedoms that boggle the mind. My sincere hope is that they remember to distinguish between "needs" versus "wants."
Too often, we confuse the two, and this confusion is a social contaminant that pollutes the soul of wealthy citizens around the world. It is one contaminant not found in Haiti.
After rendezvousing with the Falcon jet donated by Pilot Corp., we split the kids and families into 2 groups and our party headed back to Knoxville in separate planes. We delivered the VIPs into the welcoming arms and tears of new family, new friends, new surroundings, new comforts, new liberties and a new country - the United States of America.
What a privilege it was for me to have a front seat view of this event which will mark a new life for six Haitian orphans.
Wousamy Bates, Odette Coleman, Dieula Fitzpatrick, Benitha Rudd, Islande Stout and Valenzia Zimmerman - welcome to America and God bless you all.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.