Every Saturday, from 8 AM to noon, classic rock fans in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area can tune in to Lone Star 92.5 to listen to the John Clay Wolfe Show, which focuses on “talk about cars, sports, and sex drugs rock & roll… just about anything as long as it won’t get us fined by the FCC.” On the most recent show, though, the host and his colorful crew devoted some time to something much more serious: relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Estimates vary, but some experts believe Harvey could cost as much as $160 billion. However, right now, people are focused on survival, and too many victims, having been displaced from or even lost their homes due to the catastrophic flooding, are without basic necessities. With that in mind, Wolfe and his friend and fellow pilot Doug Jackson shared a simple thought: “We need to do something for these people in Houston.”
As Wolfe explained on his show, he was at a car auction in Dallas when Jackson called him, and it didn’t take long for them to put an idea together. “He says, ‘We need to do something for these people in Houston,’” Wolfe recalled. “I agree, I just don’t know what. ‘Well, you’re a pilot and I’m a pilot, why don’t we fly some stuff down?’ I’ve got this radio network, we ought to use it for some good. What if we organized a bunch of pilots and mimic that Cajun Navy thing, but do it with airplanes?”
All they needed was a name.
“I said we gotta name this thing something good. These pilots get excited if they feel like they’re a part of something and it’s, like, military ops style… Operation Airdrop,” Wolfe said. “I called our IT guy to look up Operation Airdrop online and see if it’s used, and he said someone is squatting on it and wants $2,500. I said put a dash in it, he said it’s available — boom.”
At the same time that Wolfe and Jackson were hatching their plan, Brett Hobson and Jim Terry were contacted about doing some relief efforts through the Greatest Generation Aircraft museum in Ft. Worth. “Just through the power of media, friendships and the aviation community, we said, ‘This is bad, we need to do something,” Hobson told Flying.
He and Wolfe are friends, so naturally they tied it all together into the Operation Airdrop effort. As Hobson told us, and Wolfe explained on his radio show, they didn’t know what kind of response they’d have from the GA community, but it was massive. After Wolfe registered the website, he launched a Facebook page, and overnight it had 100 members. Today, there are more than 800 members sharing stories, photos and videos of the unbelievable efforts, while the OAD staff keeps everyone updated on what supplies are needed, and how more people can get involved.
“For the past three days, 94 volunteer aircraft have flown over 35,000 pounds of cargo to the Texas coast for Operation Airdrop,” one member wrote. “That's just in the past couple of days since we really started tracking,” another replied.
In addition to Greatest Generation Aircraft’s 1942 DC-3, known as “Southern Cross,” planes from as far as Florida and Mexico have flown in for the missions, bringing everything from diapers to cleaning supplies to the victims.
“We really had no idea at the beginning,” Hobson admitted. “Right now we’ve flown 400 missions, and that’s everything from 152s to the DC-3s. We’ve had Pilatus PC-12s come in. We just had a brand new [Embraer] Phenom hauling pizzas down to Houston, and that flew out of Florida to help. The outpouring and compassion has been pretty incredible.
“We put the word out, through social media and our contacts, to bring things to different FBOs, and everybody started gathering things up and donating the use of their airplanes. We’re all pilots and volunteers, and we were taking this stuff into areas where there was hardly any ground transportation.”
Flights last one to two hours, and within 30 minutes of landing, the supplies are in the hands of people who need it. It hasn’t been as simple as packing up a plane, taking off and landing, but having some people with FAA and ATC connections has done wonders. “The FAA has been very cooperative,” Hobson said, and while OAD has had to work around some TFRs, including during President Trump’s visit to Houston, their “air force,” as Wolfe’s co-host dubbed it, even received its own squawk codes.
Behind-the-scenes, the volunteers are running a well-oiled machine that keeps each flight efficient and effective.
"OAD has a war-room style operations center located in KDTO (Denton, TX) manned by a software pro, full time controller, airlines logistics expert, and other pilots as mission control,” Wolfe explained in a statement. “These Vols are scheduling freight, assessing needs, updating FAA for clearance codes, managing aircraft weight loading specs, fuel burn, fuel replenishment locations, and of course constant weather updates to our air-force of volunteers. An enormous part of OAD's sudden success is the streamline logistics, and feedback to our pilots in real time. When pilots land they know where to drop, where to fuel, and no one goes home until every flight is accounted for safe and sound, tracking each plane online much like government controlled operations."
As for the supplies, necessity changes by the day. According to a recent group post, the clean-up process is underway and “N95 dust masks are gold right now.”
“Now, a big part of what everybody needs is cleaning supplies, like bleach,” Hobson told us. “Just imagine that you have two feet of water in your house and you have to go in and clean it up. This week, everyone wants some type of mask because of all the mold and mildew. Houston is an incredibly humid, almost tropical climate, so you can imagine these houses that have two or three feet of water, it’s basically a swamp inside their homes.”
People have undoubtedly lost priceless belongings, like photographs and irreplaceable family heirlooms, which won’t be covered by insurance. In some cases, insurance won’t even cover the damage to their homes. As Hobson stated, “No one can afford to start over,” and so the people behind OAD hope they can provide short-term relief to the victims.
"The response we've been getting has been incredible,” Wolfe said earlier this week. “The outpouring of love, energy and effort on everyone's behalf has shown the world just what Americans are capable of. Harvey was a once in a lifetime event and it will take years for the area to fully recover, but we've been doing all we can to help our neighbors in their time of need."
While Hurricane Irma appears set to hit Florida in the coming days, OAD’s work in Houston isn’t even done. The organization is currently seeking pilots in the New Orleans area to help with Harvey relief. But Wolfe and co. are still monitoring Florida, knowing that they may need to expand their Operation in the near future.
"If there's a silver lining to Harvey,” Wolfe said, “it's just how quickly we've put aside our differences and come together to help each other. America and Americans are strong, and we've just proved it to the world once again.”
For more information on Operation Airdrop, or to join the relief effort, visit the website.