Podcast: Maui Fires And Beyond: Business Aviation's Role In Humanitarian Efforts

Following the tragic wildfires in Maui, various business aviation companies sprang into action to help—notably, Black Widow Helicopters. Renne Simoes, who serves as its director of brand development, joins this week's episode to detail how his team is assisting rebuilding efforts in the region. Later on, we speak with Mark Pestal, founder of AeroAngel—a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing life-saving flights to young patients in need.

Hosted by Jeremy Kariuki, associate editor of business aviation for Aviation Week Network. Produced by Andrea Copley-Smith.

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Rush Transcript

Jeremy Kariuki: Hello and welcome to the BCA Podcast. I'm Jeremy Kariuki, Associate Editor for Business Aviation. Today, we'll be discussing humanitarian efforts following the tragic fires in Maui, as well as much needed transportation for sick children to healthcare facilities across the country. Up first, let's hear from Renne Simoes of Black Widow Helicopters, which recently donated two aircraft in support of rebuilding efforts in Maui.

Renne Simoes: I'm the director of brand relations at Black Widow. I've been working with Black Widow for about a year. It's been really exciting to be in a very niche sort of space. We essentially are put together by a cohesive team of skill-driven aviation professionals, with combined experience over 25 years across all areas, aviation, operations, business and finance. I personally do not have a start in aviation. I have 20 years experience as an operator in fitness and scaling businesses, growing culture, building brand management, and so I stepped into Black Widow to do just that. As a brand who wanted to come into the aviation space and make a big splash, as well as have a huge impact in a Black Hawk space, my skills really gelled well with everyone else involved. With so much experience that they have in aviation, I was able to bring a fresh set of eyes into the space.

As a small California company based in Camarillo, we take pride in being part of a big community here. Here at Camarillo Airport, we have the Aviation Museum here. We also have a new Aviation Explorer post that they're building here. We also have the Ventura County Fire Department and all their aviation stuff here, helicopters, Huey. So community is a huge thing to us, including our partnership with Scouts of America, locally. We just did a merit badge this Saturday with over 65 scouts, both boys and girls, and it's just about introducing them to the world of aviation. Jeremy, I don't know if you're aware, but the US has always been number one in aviation with training, with advancements and so on and so forth, in pilot training, and we've fallen into a huge shortage, so there's a great opportunity for kids to look at this not just as a trade school, which obviously our country doesn't really have anymore or emphasize on, but really see aviation as a space that's not like yachting or becoming a professional golfer.

That it is attainable by everyone and the median age being 53, white and male, there is a lot of opportunity for everything that's not that. And that includes me, being a Brazilian immigrant who came here when I was very young. I grew up in New York, and I had a lot of great experience in a cadet program coming up and that being a great escape for me and also a great place for me to find discipline on top of being raised by a single mom, so I just wanted to be able to provide that as a giving back factor as we are as a brand, locally. So again, community is huge for us. We actively hold the merit badges, which we just did this past Sunday, including being part of the new established Aviation post that's happening right here in September. At Black Widow, we specialize in the UH-60 modernization, that's the Black Hawk, aimed to revitalizing aging systems and airframes, which are pretty much nearing obsolete. So providing a costly to maintain and sort of not being able to meet the demands of current missions.

What we do is we take those Black Hawks, we bid them on auction, we win them, we demilitarize them, and then our modernization programs revolve around a robust aircraft, substantial airframe and engine cycles performing in line with contemporary ones. So the modification that we make does bring these retired Black Hawks from the US military into private use so that it can go into firefighting search, rescue and utility missions. So through these strategic modifications, the operator, the owner, can extend the lifetime of this aircraft for decades, while minimizing costs compared to any other new aircraft. Our journey, as I mentioned, begins with the government auction. So we acquire these airframes, we embarked in a comprehensive demilitarization, so everything that's militarized gets removed, and then we replace the old one with the new. Again, with a small team that we have very, very precise, very surgical. The avionics are bolstered, the airframe is versatile and therefore we are able to modify it to fit any of the need depending on the client.

The reason why we wanted to step in and do something for Maui, I'm sure by now Jeremy, you can see that we're in a really niche situation, a very niche market space. So being in California, going through the challenges that we've had personally with fire and everything else, seeing this in Maui really kind of hit close to our heart. And being that, what are you doing in something like that? You want to take immediate action with something that's tangible, something that can really impact a change. And the only way that we can really do it in this case is providing the resources such as these aircrafts, which are... they're made for this. They're made for search and rescue, they're made for the opportunity to move things along. I mean, after we witnessed the immediate search and rescue and anticipating the arduous journey that's going to be ahead for months, these Black Hawks to us really signifies an unwavering support for the Island's recovery.

Jeremy Kariuki: Yeah. And on that note of course, over the past couple of years, we've seen very extreme weather events, be it flooding, hurricanes, fires, what have you. On a broader scale, what role do you believe that private business and general aviation play in humanitarian efforts across the country?

Renne Simoes: Well, take us for example. I think as owners and operators of aircraft such as this, there's plenty of opportunity. Whether it be a donation of a month where those aircrafts are out there just serving a purpose for one specific place or one specific city, whatever the case may be, that can be a donation. I mean, we've gotten such tremendous response from the aviation community, with pilots reaching out to us who are Hawaii natives who are offering their time to fly the Black Hawks once they're there. And these Black Hawk operators, they cost money obviously, but they also operate on a much higher scale of revenue that they take in. So the role that I think companies like ours, and just operators in the aviation space, is being able to pitch in whenever there is such a catastrophe that hits any one of us that we can somehow collaborate.

Somehow I'm hoping that this and what comes out of this, as I mentioned with the nonprofits and that collaboration, I'm hoping it also opens up the door to exactly what you're talking about in your question, which is us mending together and coming together and privately being able to show that we can make an impact on the things that are important to us. And if we're modernizing these aircrafts to serve for search rescue, to serve for fire suppression, to serve for utility work, and by the way, it's not a temporary, "Here you go," it's a permanent, "Here, it's yours." It's not just for right now, it's for now, and all the problem solving you'll need going forward.

Jeremy Kariuki: Right.

Renne Simoes: Because you have helicopters, but you don't have these. And even what we saw from the National Guard just wasn't enough, because they're not outfitted for those proper missions. So there are tons of operators that exist in a space that own these aircrafts already and there, they're already built. So Jeremy, I'm hoping that the same way that we've taken a step forward to be one of the operators that are part of not just the Scouts but also the new Explorer post and inspiring these children to look at aviation as a future in not just flying but also as operators, as maintainers, because it's a very viable place to be a part of, we're hoping to do the same thing for the wealthy and very well established brands out there that exist that can really make an impact by lending their aircraft.

Don't need to donate it, but maybe lending or lending their resources, lending their plan or a month, a month that you take some of those out of commission for your contract and you send it to a mission such as this, which is just giving back purely because they got struck with something tremendous. I don't think everyone is thinking that way perhaps, because we're such a very niche, I guess, market or existence, we're the ones who are creating the things to solve the problem. But I'm hoping that the independency of everyone who cares coming together and seeing something like this that you're writing will bring us together and show everyone in this industry there is more we can do and hopefully the next time, it is a collaboration.

It's a few calls, a few conversations, a few Zoom calls and we can all get together and strategize something on a big whiteboard and go after it way faster than the government can. And again, no reflection on the government, it's just that we have money, we have resources, we are our own bosses, that's what this country provides. We have that freedom and God gave us free will, so let's go help others. So thank you man, I appreciate that.

Jeremy Kariuki: Up next is our conversation with Mark Pestal, founder of AeroAngel, to learn more about the work he and his team of volunteers do to get young patients to the care they need. What would you say is the most difficult and the most rewarding part of AeroAngel's work?

Mark Pestal: So I think that the most rewarding is to be able to call up a family and say, "Hey, we've got a flight for your child to get him to Boston Children's Hospital." And these are kids that can't fly commercially on a commercial airline safely or endure a long drive, and so it's so amazing to be able to say, "Yeah, we've got a flight to get your child to a hospital for treatment." And on the flip side, when we don't have the resources to call a family and say, "Hey. Yeah, we're unable to help with a flight," and fortunately we're working on... our goal is obviously a 100% flight fulfillment rate and we're probably batting 95% or more on flights, and that sometimes we have to purchase a charter flight to have better coverage.

Jeremy Kariuki: Could you walk me through the process of finding a patient that needs transportation, to actually delivering them to the right hospital or facility?

Mark Pestal: Sure. So in fact, I was just helping out on a flight yesterday as a copilot, and we were contacted by a family in the Dallas area whose 10-month-old son has a number of rare heart defects and needed heart surgery at Boston Children's Hospital. And so the referral actually came from a nurse I think, in a Dallas hospital where the family had been treating, and so the family got in touch with us and we were able to arrange the flight for their 10-month-old son going out to Boston Children's Hospital for heart surgery to correct some very rare heart defects.

Jeremy Kariuki: Wow. That's really amazing. Is there a registry of pilots and operators that AeroAngel has? Or how do you secure flights and flight crews for these kind of missions?

Mark Pestal: Sure. So we have a network, a database of over 250 owner-operators and probably 500 jets and that that we can reach out to. And then we'll also reach out to individual owner-operators for a specific flight out of a particular area if we don't have a donor in that area. And then as I said, we've got some good corporate partnerships, one with flyExclusive out of Kinston, North Carolina. And so they've helped us with a number of flights, particularly long distance flights. And those charter flights can fill an important need when it's more efficient to just have a one-way flight than have a donor do a round trip flight, so we have a whole network of owner-operators and we're certainly trying to expand that. And I always tell folks, even one flight a year can save a child's life. We will send out a flight schedule once a week with the flights on it, and there's flexibility in most times when a family can travel, and so we can work around an owner-operator's schedule to make these flights happen.

Jeremy Kariuki: And in your opinion, what role does business aviation play in humanitarian efforts across the country?

Mark Pestal: So I would say it's a significant role. I personally come across a number of owner-operators that do flights that just aren't really on the radar screen at all. There are a lot of flights that are being conducted, not even through AeroAngel or some other group, but they're just being done and to help out. And I think it's a great community, the aviation business arena, it's very giving and generous and so there's a lot of folks that want to support humanitarian efforts, in particularly for children and that. I mean, they just have to know about it to be able to participate. But yeah, there are a lot of flights being done that never receive any public attention.

Jeremy Kariuki: And are there any changes, be it at the local, state or federal level that you feel could help further the work of organizations like yours?

Mark Pestal: Again, maybe it's raising visibility for these efforts. Certainly we're... AeroAngel is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and so that does help when, whether it's a flight donor or we receive a lot of in-kind donations to support our program. And so certainly the tax deduction helps toward that end. There are a lot of aviation charity organizations out there. AeroAngel has a unique model of using all private business aircraft with a crew of professional pilots to do flights, some on short notice, long distances. And these are flights primarily for children who cannot be on a commercial airline flight safely because maybe they have no immune system or have some medical equipment, they can't drive long distances, but they don't need air ambulance. And so that's AeroAngel's unique model.

Jeremy Kariuki: And if there are pilots that want to get involved with your work, what should they do?

Mark Pestal: So they can reach out to me at [email protected] and let us know their interest. I mean, we're looking primarily for owners and operators of business aircraft, and certainly pilots have a role to play in terms of making the missions available to their owners or operators.

Jeremy Kariuki: And also before I forget, if people want to donate to your cause, where can they go to do that?

Mark Pestal: So our website would be the best source of information, as well as a place to give: aeroangel.org.

Jeremy Kariuki: All right. Well Mark, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Mark Pestal: Thank you, Jeremy.

Jeremy Kariuki: This week's episode was produced by Andrea Copley-Smith. If you enjoyed the show, remember to subscribe to the BCA Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, or Audible. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

Jeremy Kariuki

Jeremy Kariuki is Associate Editor for Business Aviation, based in Atlanta. Before joining Aviation Week in April 2023, Jeremy served as a writer for FLYING Magazine, FreightWaves and the Center for Sustainable Journalism.