Hurricane Dorian - An Aviation Disruption

Updated: Mar 12

Bahamasair, Delta Airlines, and Jetblue Airways were the only airlines to operate on the second day of the hurricane. Photo by author.

It has been over two months since Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Northwestern Bahamas leaving a destructive path in its wake. These islands are no strangers to Hurricanes, however, this was one for the record books as Dorian became the second strongest hurricane in the Atlantic basin and is tied for the most powerful storm to ever make landfall, with winds at 185mph and gusts around 220mph.

With the entire NW Bahamas under a hurricane warning on September 1st, 2019, the day Dorian struck, every airport in the affected islands was ordered to close until the storm passed. All except Lynden Pindling International Airport (MYNN/NAS) on the island of New Providence which is the main gateway in and out The Bahamas. All flights, international and domestic, continued to operate as if the storm wasn’t overhead.

However, MYNN was observing the weather conditions and stated that if the wind speed exceeds 40mph then the airport will close. This mimics a similar protocol to the one implemented when Hurricane Matthew struck New Providence in 2016 and MYNN closed the day before, leaving airlines to scramble to get their airplanes to safety.

September 2nd saw continued action at MYNN as the airport remained open, however, the airport was mostly empty as most airlines decided rather to be safe than sorry. Bahamasair, Delta Airlines, and Jetblue Airways were the only airlines to operate that day which in turn caught the attention of aviation enthusiasts on Twitter as they tracked the flights coming in and out of the airport.

Excluding Bahamasair, only one Jetblue flight managed to land at MYNN while all other flights ended up diverting back to their origin. That was, until British Airways pilots flying G-YMMB, a 777-236ER, pushed through to make a successful landing just as New Providence got the all-clear due to the Hurricane warning being lifted.

G-YMMB seen here after pushing through the storm and landing at MYNN. Photo by author.

On September 3rd the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) alongside the United States Coast Guard (USCG) were the first to respond as Dorian continued to batter the islands 40 hours after the initial landfall. The Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Dr. Hon. Hubert Minnis, boarded a USCG Lockheed HC-130 Hercules to observe first hand the destruction of The Abacos. However, there was nowhere for the aircraft to land at the airport as Abaco was underwater. Despite this, the view from above struck everyone on board as the 3rd largest settlement in the country had virtually disappeared.

A similar flyby was performed the next day over the Grand Bahama Island where destruction could be seen for miles. Grand Bahama International Airport (MYGF/FPO) was also underwater and so no aircraft could land or take off. Meanwhile, survivors looking to get off the islands and relief efforts looking to get to the islands began to take shape as the largest humanitarian crisis in The Bahamas unfolded.

On September 3rd the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) alongside the United States Coast Guard (USCG) were the first to respond to the catastrophy. Photo by author.

As the water began to recede, residents of the Great Abaco made their way to the southern end of the island in order to get to the Sandy Point Airport Strip (MYAS/YAS), which sports a smaller runway at only 4,500 ft long, which, in normal conditions, could only accommodate 3 small planes at a time. This was multiplied by 6 as local charter pilots in small Piper and Cessna props flew into Sandy Point to deliver aid and help evacuate residents. Meanwhile, MYNN became the hub for relief efforts as it was the only large functioning airport that was able to accommodate everything at the time.

However, MYNN was operating well above its capacity as work to refurbish the airport’s second runway began earlier in the year. That, coupled with operating with a single runway, airlines sending more planes to make up flights lost over the past few days, relief aircraft coming from abroad and the many small charter crafts coming in and out of the area, made for a difficult time for Air Traffic Controllers as they battled the congested airspace and the growing number of delayed inbound/outbound traffic.

Photo by author.

The airspace above Grand Bahama and The Abaco was then closed to all aircraft except for those authorized by The Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority (BCCA). This, however, did not stop pilots from lying about their destination as they flew through the airspace.

As MYAM and MYGF re-opened to restricted traffic on September 7th, they quickly become congested by private flights that resulted in the slowing of the delivering of the relief efforts to those who desperately needed them. This also meant a vast number of arriving aircraft did not follow procedures to obtain authorization from the BCCA.

This red tape became an annoyance for those coming in and out of The Bahamas as emotion began to rise. It was at this time the Bahamian Government finally authorized free evacuation flights on Bahamasair from Abaco and Grand Bahama to New Providence as news broke out that people were being charged $75 BSD per person to evacuate. Delta Airlines also assisted in the free evacuation flights using one of their McDonnell Douglas MD-88 (N912DL) from Ft.Lauderdale to fly between MYAM and MYNN.

Bahamas Air was one of the most affected airlines. Photo by author.

The overcrowded airspace was still a problem as more private relief aircraft continued flying not only illegally but also recklessly. This led to some close calls, like the one involving a Bahamasair ATR flight carrying Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis which had to make a sudden drop in altitude while en route to Abaco to avoid a mid-air collision. He was accompanied by CARICOM chairman and St Lucia Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, Turks and Caicos Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson; CARICOM secretary-general Ambassador Irwin LaRoque and other officials. The pilots explained the drop in altitude was their response to the ATR Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) as another aircraft refused to respond to ATC or the Bahamasair crew.

Two weeks after Dorian first hit the islands, traffic conditions finally began to normalize at MYNN as well as MYAM, MYGF and the adjacent airfields began accepting the aircraft that were using New Providence as a hub.


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