Local goth pilot helps in aid effort
Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas
Ian Dutton back home in Soho on Sullivan St. on Monday.
By Lincoln Anderson
In the wake of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake, many desperately wish they could do something more than just “write a check” to help. Soho’s Ian Dutton answered the call in a big way when, over the past weekend, he flew more than 100 U.S. troops down to Port-au-Prince to help in the crisis, then evacuated more than 80 Haitians on his return trip to the States.
Dutton is known locally as vice chairperson of Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee, on which he’s a vocal advocate for creating more bike lanes. Wearing another hat, he’s a magenta-haired, goth activist, who joined a lawsuit against New York City’s cabaret laws that limit dancing.
His day job, however, is as a commercial pilot for Continental Airlines. His dueling alter egos are summed up in his e-mail handle: “Dark Pilot.”
This month, Dutton is on duty as a reserve pilot, meaning he has to be ready to take any flight on short notice.
The call came on his cell phone Saturday afternoon as Dutton and his wife, Shea Hovey, were in Central Park on their way to the zoo.
It was Dutton’s captain on the cell, telling him that Continental was going to airlift troops into Haiti.
“He said, ‘You’re going to be going way beyond your normal air time,’” Dutton said.
Dutton, 40, spoke to Downtown Express Monday around noon, after he had had a chance to get some sleep after the marathon mission.
The captain gave him several chances to back out if he wanted to, Dutton said.
“We can’t afford to have a plane stuck in Haiti,” his superior told him, stressing the urgency of completing the job successfully.
“I was more than excited to do something,” Dutton said. “You feel all you can do is text-message your $10” to help the relief effort.
To Dutton’s knowledge, this was the first instance of a U.S. commercial airline being used to help the relief effort in Haiti by ferrying in troops.
By 5 p.m. Saturday, Dutton was at Continental’s hub at Newark Airport. Three pilots one more than usual would be aboard the 757: two captains, along with Dutton, the first officer, who would ride in the monitoring pilot’s seat the whole time. (The monitoring pilot keeps an eye on things while another pilot is at the controls.) Also along for the flight were a mechanic, a load planner and four flight attendants, two of them Haitian.
“They had asked for it,” Dutton said of the two Haitian attendants’ request for the assignment. “It was helpful because they spoke the Creole; it was helpful when we brought evacuees out.”
At 1 a.m., they roared out of Newark en route to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. There they loaded in 130 members of the 82nd Airborne Division, and loaded cargo into the jet plane’s belly.
“I don’t know what cargo,” Dutton said, “but it was up to the maximum cargo weight.
Dutton found it ironic that, when they boarded at the Air Force base, the crew had to go through security checks “to make sure we didn’t have guns to pilot 130 troops with guns.”
“They were wearing their desert gear,” Dutton said of the soldiers. “They looked like they were going to fight in Afghanistan. There were lots of orders of ‘Sit the [heck] down!’... They were all male. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone under 20.”
‘Smoke over the city’
“Coming in, there was a lot of smoke over the city, and rising from the towns around the city,” Dutton noted. “We were assuming they were burning bodies. It was gray-white smoke.”
As Dutton described it, Toussaint Louverture International Airport wasn’t high tech to begin with, even before the devastating earthquake.
“Haiti has one air-traffic controller,” he explained. “It was chaotic. You keep your eye out the windows, look for other planes. You see a plane don’t hit him.”
After the 7.0-magnitude quake, the airport terminal was left standing, but with large cracks in the walls, which reportedly widened with each subsequent tremor. No one wanted to go inside the building, much less the air-traffic control crew; so they set up outside on the grass.
“It’s a bunch of guys on a picnic blanket, with a radio and binoculars,” Dutton explained. “They had a Jeep battery to power the radio. Actually, I don’t think this airport has radar under normal conditions. At lots of Caribbean airports, you just tell them where you are,” he said of the navigational challenges.
The biggest problem, though, in Dutton’s view, is that the airport doesn’t have enough space on the ground, which slows down the whole process of bringing in help. There’s only enough room for eight big planes to park at once, he said.
It also took a while to find stairs tall enough for the troops to debark safely from the plane, he added. Finally, one was found, though it was still about 3 feet too short, forcing the troops, weighed down with their guns and gear, to jump to the stairs.
Normally, the Port-au-Prince airport has 150 employees working, but when Dutton’s plane touched down, there were just three around. One came up to Dutton.
“He looked at me with those big eyes like you saw down here after 9/11,” Dutton said, recalling New York’s shattering tragedy. “He said, ‘I have a secret. ... My secret is I’m hungry. Can you help?’”
Dutton gave the man water, oranges and some sandwich baskets from the plane.
Dutton said they had planned to pick up a Continental employee who was supposedly somewhere out in Haiti, but had no idea how they were going to find him. Luckily, it turned out he had already safely made it to Miami.
At first, the crew wasn’t sure how they would take evacuees on board whether it might just be the first 150 people who rushed the plane’s door. But there was a small table with a laptop set up outside the terminal, and a line of people with U.S. passports. There were 85 persons ready to leave, mainly embassy officials or relief agency members, as well as some children who may have been separated from their parents in the disaster, Dutton said. About 90 percent were Haitian.
Evacuees waited to have their documentation checked outside Port-au-Prince's crack-strewn airport before boarding the flight to Florida.
Some of them were in bad shape, he said. A couple had had legs amputated. One man had a grotesquely swollen foot that he couldn’t move. Another man lay under a blanket covering clearly grievous injuries.
They made a quick, half-hour flight over to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic for refueling. It was a good feeling, Dutton said, to be flying once again into an airport with radar. They were given priority to land, since their fuel was close to running out. In Santo Domingo, Dutton said he saw a lot of German and United Nations troops.
The grueling journey’s next leg was to Sanford, outside Orlando, Fl., where they offloaded the Haitian evacuees.
In the end, Dutton had been in the monitoring pilot’s seat the whole time, and had personally flown two stretches from Newark to Pope Air Force Base and Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo. The other two captains split the rest of the flying time, and one of them spelled Dutton for an hour as monitoring pilot so he could catch a nap.
As he often does as monitoring pilot, Dutton brought along some reading material to peruse during stretches when the plane is sailing smoothly on a steady course on a long flight.
“This time I brought Downtown Express,” he said. “Usually, there are downtimes when you pull out something to read.”
Yet on this flight, Dutton didn’t do any reading.
“Not on this trip...not on this trip,” he said somberly.
Somehow, it wasn’t hard to stay awake.
“By the time we got to Florida, I had been up 24 hours,” he said. “I think because of the extraordinary nature of this, you have a natural reaction to stay awake and alert. Your brain doesn’t stop and think, ‘I’m tired.’... You have something that’s got to get done.”
In Florida, Dutton grabbed a seat in first class on the now-empty plane for the final leg back to Newark, and finally got a few hours of sleep, before they arrived at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
‘It was a workout’
“It was extraordinary. It was a workout,” he reflected on Monday, speaking on the phone from his Soho apartment. “The first thing I did when I got back was brush my teeth it had been two days.”
Dutton said he doesn’t know exactly how Continental initially got involved in the Haiti airlift operation. But he said Continental would be running more of the flights except with four pilots, instead of three, to give them more rest.
As of Monday, it was reported that 11,000 U.S. military personnel were on the ground in Haiti, offshore or en route to help with peacekeeping as lawlessness allegedly grew amid the desperate conditions.