Dr. John McManigle Jr. (pictured in the middle) with Operation Airdrop volunteers.
On Saturday, September 22, during a 24-hour break before a week of residency night-shifts began, Dr. John McManigle Jr., a CA-2 in the Duke Anesthesiology Residency Program, decided to put his piloting skills to use and take a flight out for some barbecue at a local “fly in” restaurant. But plans for his joy ride quickly changed upon arrival at the Raleigh-Durham International (RDU) Airport where he noticed a large contingent of volunteers loading donated supplies from trucks into the general aviation terminal.
“I decided to investigate, and inside, I found Operation Airdrop for Hurricane Florence victims in full swing, with volunteers loading stacks of supplies into airplanes and pilots planning their flights,” says McManigle, who is an instrument rated private pilot in single-engine land and sea airplanes. “That’s when I found the organizers and volunteered to help.”
Operation Airdrop was originally founded in Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017; the non-profit organization has responded to numerous natural disasters since that time, large and small. “I remember reading about their efforts after Harvey and Irma, but I had never taken part before. After Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina, I noticed that Operation Airdrop was working locally to deliver aid to victims, but knowing that I had a full clinical schedule the week after Florence, I didn’t think I would be able to participate.” But McManigle was in the right place at the right time that day, with his Cessna 182 Skylane – a single-propeller, four-seat airplane that he shares with two other pilots. He was assigned to take an assortment of supplies to Columbus County in North Carolina. Technically, his plane can safely carry about 500 pounds of supplies, but given its compact nature, the space for actual supplies was limited. So, he and a team of volunteers helped roll more than 150 pounds of supplies – including diapers, canned goods, batteries, bug spray, toiletries and bottled water – out to his plane.
Photo not taken during Operation Airdrop
“One of the more amazing things I saw at RDU was the number of planes flying in and out, and the air traffic controllers’ quick adaptation to the change,” says McManigle. “RDU hadn’t seen this much traffic since it was an American Airlines hub in the 1980s. Faced with this surge, the controllers added additional radar and tower control positions, published choreographed arrivals from the southeast and southwest to corral air traffic safely, and were very patient with the rural pilots who came in to volunteer – many a little rusty on the procedures at major commercial airports. Flights on humanitarian missions like this use the call sign “compassion,” and it seemed like the tower was clearing a compassion flight for takeoff about every 90 seconds.”
During McManigle’s flight to Columbus County, he recalls visible signs of flooding, rivers cresting well beyond their banks, and swamped farmlands with obvious damage to buildings and infrastructure. Once he landed, McManigle says the residents picking up supplies conveyed that the majority hadn’t seen the devastating impacts like those on the coast – just long losses of power – but that fifteen families nearby had lost their homes entirely to the storm, and the supplies he delivered could “keep them going” until normal transportation routes reopened.
Operation Airdrop volunteers unloading much needed supplies.
“It can be difficult to find time to do meaningful volunteer work on a residency schedule, and I think that makes it important to maximize the impact you can have by focusing on efforts that play to your strengths and availability,” says McManigle. “The airdrop mission was perfect for this – pilots are a limited resource, and although my one flight between hospital shifts was only a drop in the bucket compared to the many volunteers who spent their whole week shuttling supplies back and forth non-stop, I was proud to play a part.”
For information about donating to the victims of Hurricane Florence, please visit Duke’s Doing Good in the Neighborhood campaign, which launched the DGIN Emergency Relief Fund to collect donations for immediate disaster relief work. Donations to this fund go to the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund.