Chopper group keeps up disaster-zone airlifts


Staff Writer

After the March 11 quake and tsunami ravaged ports, railways, roads and bridges all along the Tohoku coast, leaving thousands of people stranded in isolated areas without water or electricity, the only way vital supplies could reach them at first was by flying them in.

To help the survivors, a group of private helicopter pilots and owners participated in relief efforts for about a month from March 23, delivering food, water, medicines and other necessities to stricken coastal towns in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

From late April, they shifted their focus to transporting doctors and nurses to the stricken areas, helping survivors get faster medical treatment.

“The scale of the disaster was so immense that it made many people want to do something for the devastated area. For us, that meant using our helicopters and piloting knowledge,” Koji Hashimoto, the head of Helicopter Conference of Japan, told The Japan Times.

Nagoya-based HCJ was one of the first private copter groups to enter the disaster-hit area after March 11. The association is made up of 65 licensed helicopter pilots, some with their own aircraft.

“As a group of pilots, with some owning their own choppers, we really wanted to do something for Japan,” said Chris Glenn, an Australian radio DJ based in Nagoya who is also an HCJ member. “When I learned that roads and bridges were destroyed, I knew copters would be an important lifeline.”

A few days after the disaster, HCJ members began soliciting donations on the streets of Nagoya to cover their fuel and supply costs, and advertized their mission on the radio and the association’s website. With help from the Hope International Development Agency Japan, an international nonprofit organization that supports the needy in developing nations, they gathered roughly ¥14 million in total, according to Hashimoto. Exxon Mobil Corp. meanwhile donated 4,000 liters of fuel, he said.

From March 19, HCJ stationed four-seat choppers at Sugo Circuit in Miyagi Prefecture, and transported all the supplies there by trucks.

Based on information they gathered using Twitter and Facebook, they began delivering the supplies, flying between the circuit and shelters about four times a day, Hashimoto said.

About 500 people were sheltering in Miyako Elementary School in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, when Hashimoto and other members landed March 23 to deliver food and water. But their living conditions were far worse than they had anticipated, he said.

“They didn’t have any clean water, so they were drinking water from a swimming pool after boiling and filtering it,” Hashimoto said, adding HCJ made several runs to the school that day and delivered 2 tons of water.

Things were even worse in an isolated shelter in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where about 170 people had been waiting for 40 days for a secure food lifeline to reach them, Hashimoto said. The survivors had lived off whatever food they could scavenge, but no major aid had arrived before the association’s helicopters landed April 20, he said.

Although they flew more than 300 times, delivering about 40 tons of supplies in total to the stricken areas, both Hashimoto and Glenn said they could have done more if they had been allowed to work with the local government.

“When we were in Sendai, we saw huge stacks of supplies in a gymnasium waiting to be shipped. So we offered our help to deliver them, but the local government wouldn’t give us permission,” Hashimoto said. “Once supply gets under the control of the authorities, it can only be handled by appointed volunteers or people.

“If they had only let us deliver them, we could have done it. . . . That was something that made us very disappointed,” he said.

HCJ plans to continue transporting doctors and nurses to devastated areas until the end of July.

Based on the knowledge they’ve accumulated about the disaster relief efforts, association members are now planning to develop a quicker and more effective system in the event of future disasters.

“There are things that private groups can help out with,” Hashimoto said.

“We hope we can get rid of the wall between the public and private sectors and cooperate more in the future.”