Todd Loomer logged 40 hours of flight time in the week after the storm.
By Hilary Reeves
Two days after Maria’s winds quieted over San Juan, Todd Loomer was in the air flying his team from Seattle to Jacksonville, Florida.
Loomer is the Director of Operations for Saltchuk Aviation. His regular work transporting managers and executives between Saltchuk companies across the country was temporarily suspended in favor of a series of planned supply missions between Florida and the Caribbean. In the days following the storm, the only way on – or off – San Juan, St. Thomas and St. Croix was by air.
“We landed in Jacksonville on September 22,” said Loomer. “The next morning, we loaded the airplane with 10 people and as much equipment, food, water, and supplies as we could carry. When we were at our maximum baggage weight, we took off for San Juan.”
Loomer has been flying for Saltchuk since August of 2012. He graduated from Walla Walla University in 1986, and worked for Executive Flight, a charter company based in Wenatchee, Washington for the next 25 years.
“Growing up, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a pilot,” he said. “My goal was to be an airline pilot, but the more I learned about the industry, the more I discovered it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.”
Loomer has safely transported actors, politicians and rock groups, critically injured patients, and business executives. The company thrived until 2008 when the economy took a nosedive and business began to decline.
“I knew it was time for a change,” he said. “Fortunately for me, a position with Saltchuk was available.”
Loomer’s team includes Steen Bramer, pilot, Stephanie Slaughter, flight attendant, and Ed Sullivan, director of maintenance.
“Steen, Stephanie, and I do the flying, and Ed keeps our airplane in perfect condition,” he said.
The team averages 350 hours of flight time per year, typically flying back and forth between Seattle and Saltchuk hubs in Alaska, Hawaii and Florida.
“I like the variety of where we fly,” he said. “The scenery in Alaska – it never gets old. And I enjoy the different challenges present at every destination.”
That first flight into San Juan, Loomer explained, was among the most challenging of his career.
The Air Traffic Control systems on all three islands were decimated by the storm. In San Juan, the tower was operating on a generator, but radar was down. To land, he had to get permission from FEMA, then the military. He was assigned a Slot Time – a designated time he had to land. The use of Slot Times helped ensure no other aircraft was nearby, as the radar system was non-operational.
“For the next week, until the ships could start getting in, we flew every other day, alternating routes for TOTE and Tropical, first between Jacksonville and San Juan, then West Palm Beach, St. Thomas and St. Croix,” he said. “It was indescribable. Normally when you fly into a Caribbean destination, everything’s green. Now it’s brown. The trees were completely shredded, the palms stripped off the palm trees. On final approach into San Juan, you see debris everything: roofing materials, siding, downed power lines. Most of the windows in St. Croix don’t have glass in them. One of the locals told me a weather station atop one of the island’s hills stopped registering wind speed at 250 miles per hour.”
By the middle of the following week, the tower controllers in West Palm Beach had noticed Loomer’s crew continued missions, and asked to send their own supplies to their fellow Air Traffic Controllers in San Juan.
“It occurred to me that the the airport employees in San Juan were working so hard to load and unload all the supplies for our Saltchuk employees – we ended up buying some food and water on our own for those people as well.”
Loomer’s team got a satellite antenna and dish to St. Croix in the days before the port was operational. With the help of the additional communication, the port was again made operational, and larger loads of cargo were at last let in. On September 30, he flew back to Seattle.
“It was nice to be able to help,” he concluded. “It really makes you appreciate the necessities that many of us take for granted, like electricity, and running water.”