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September 30, 2023

San Martin Airport hosts disaster exercise

Pilots, agencies focus on regional prep

The South County Airport Pilots Association (SCAPA) Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART) staged their annual mobilization exercise event Saturday at San Martin Airport to sharpen focus on volunteer emergency airlift services. The chief goal was to bring forces together that can aid local communities’ disaster response after a cataclysmic event like a major earthquake, flood or fire which impairs road and highway transportation.

This year the exercise scenario was an 8.9 magnitude earthquake centered on the San Andreas fault near San Carlos, theoretically causing collapsed housing, sweeping power and water outages, and region-wide impairment of ground transportation.

Paul Marshall, Incident Commander and chair for the steering committee for D.A.R.T, said gatherings and meetings have been going on since 2008. They were inspired by the massive 1989 Loma Prieta 7.1 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“A half of a million pounds of supplies were flown into Watsonville Municipal Airport for that quake relief and we learned that there was a lot of communication and coordination that could have been done a lot better,” he said. 

Also on hand at the Sept. 24 San Martin exercise was the Office of Santa Clara County Emergency Management, the FBI and other emergency services operation centers. 

“We are also having a radio link here today between the airport here and Morgan Hill and Gilroy emergency operation centers with amateur radio. That way, if the telecommunications network is down we’ll still be able to have communications,” Marshall said.  

Pointing to a large map of California, Marshall showed how a network of airports scattered across the state can serve as “a critical link in a critical time.” He added that there are about 26,000 planes in California with 54,000 licensed pilots.

“We have a map like this, published by the Department of Transportation, that ties all the public airports in California; there are about 250 of them,” Marshall said. “Only about 20 have commercial service; so the ones that are general aviation and can take smaller planes are very well distributed around the whole state.”

Kathleen Conley of the Santa Clara County Office of Supportive Housing said, “This is a great opportunity to exercise our Disaster Airlift Response Team which has been very helpful in the past, especially in major disasters where we are able to move people and equipment and supplies where other routes may be impassable. So having this opportunity today is so important in helping us sharpen our skills, make our muscles strong so we are ready to go in the event of a real emergency.”

Pilot Robert Blake checks his Bonanza 836 single-engine airplane prior to taking members of the public up for a flight from San Martin Airport on Sept. 24. Photo: Tarmo Hannula

During the event, local pilots flew missions in simulated disaster airlifts that invited a limited number of the general public to fly along for a close up view of the operation. 

San Martin Airport also serves as a base for Cal Fire and other emergency personnel such as Stanford Life Flight, Medevac, Liga International, CalDART and Angel Flight.

The event also served as a platform to promote fellowship among pilots and aviation, encourage and assist people’s pursuit of aviation and enhance flying safety.

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Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.

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