Wheels up: Air PIH is ready for departure

January 26, 2010

Originally posted to pih.org on January 26, 2010

Justin Miranda is examining a white board covered in notes about the model, cargo load, and location of dozens of planes. Generous donors have them made available to PIH in order to shuttle desperately needed medical staff and supplies to Haiti, and they now need to be matched with teams of volunteers and cargo ready for shipment. A member of the “planes” contingent of the newly formed “People, Planes, and Stuff” department, Justin is better known at PIH for his Java programming talents than for knowledge of a Falcon 900’s cargo capacity or how many people can get to Haiti on a Challenger 604. His new area of expertise is clear, however, as he explains how a donated anesthesia machine will need to be packed in order to fit properly into an available plane. Justin is not alone in his willingness and ability to re-focus his attention in response to the crisis in Haiti: he, along with several of his colleagues from every department at PIH, has learned very quickly to implement PIH’s plans to deploy medical personnel and supplies to Haiti by ensuring the safe arrival of dozens of flights over the last ten days.

With the invaluable help of the planes’ owners and pilots, the PIH planes team was formed and put to work immediately following the 7.0 earthquake which flattened much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns. Julia Noguchi, who normally spends her days in the training department, pitched in as a member of the planes team. “It’s a steep learning curve, and we’ve had to ramp up activities quickly,” she says. “But we’re being very effective.”

The first group of surgeons was on the ground in Haiti less than 72 hours after the earthquake. Since then, more than 40 planes carrying over 170 volunteers and tens of thousands of pounds of medical supplies, have landed safely, delivering precious cargo for PIH facilities in Port-au-Prince and the countryside. Dozens more flights are in the pipeline, and are being managed with speed and accuracy. Julia Jezmir, the PIH Russia Project Coordinator is fluent in English and Russian, and in order to communicate effectively with her new partners—the owners and pilots of the planes—is becoming proficient in the Army alphabet as well. “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…I’m not as good as Jon [Lascher, from the PIH procurement team] but everyone is learning.”

Luke Messac, Matt Basilico, and Emily Bahnsen, all of whom are on PIH co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer’s staff, help match offers of planes with teams of volunteers and donated supplies, and help coordinate landing slots at the overburdened Port-Au-Prince airport. Emily can now speak with great authority about the size and cargo capacity of planes that need a two hour landing slot, as opposed to those which only need one hour (generally smaller planes that can be unloaded by hand and then parked on grass). As she describes the process, which includes coordinating with the US military and air traffic controllers in Haiti, she explains that being nice gets you a long way. “The people on the other end of the phone have a really difficult job, and they are working so hard. We just try to make things as easy as possible for them.”

Once a landing slot is secured, the arrival time, tail number, and contents of the plane need to be communicated to the people waiting for the plane on the ground in Port-au-Prince. Joan VanWassenhove does that, sometimes sending text messages until 3 in the morning in order to make sure that our incredible team members in Haiti are at the airport to receive the people and supplies. Joan’s regular job is to help disseminate lessons learned from programmatic research from the sites.

As they work together in an office now dedicated to “Air PIH” activities, a major theme emerges: gratitude and admiration for the people providing their planes, and for the pilots flying them. Because PIH must take landing slots whenever they are available, but also must achieve “wheels down” status within a twenty minute window on either side of that time, the planes are operating both on very short notice and on extremely tight schedules. Luke shakes his head in amazement as he gets off the phone with the pilot who brought PIH Executive Director Ophelia Dahl, along with medical volunteers and supplies to Port-au-Prince, and was bringing home a group of volunteers on the return flight. “The pilots are awesome,” says Luke. “They’re so clear headed and reasonable. And willing to do whatever it takes.”

In the coming weeks and months, the flights will surely slow down and will no longer need the full time attention of people like Justin and Julia. PIH’s strategy in Haiti has always been a long term one, and will need additional resources for many years to come, but eventually Justin will be able to return to his duties improving the Electronic Medical Records system, and Julia will dedicate 100 percent of her time to Russia project. For the time being however, Air PIH is ready to fly.

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