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GA Pilots Assist Nebraska Town Cut Off by Flood Waters

By Ti Windisch

March 21, 2019 - Collin Caneva was doing a typical sight-seeing flight out of Lincoln, Nebraska, in his 1960 Cessna 182-B when he heard that his wife’s aunt was stuck in Fremont, Nebraska. As Collin soon learned, she was far from the only one.

Fremont, a town of roughly 26,000, found itself entirely surrounded by flood waters after a dam burst in Spencer, Nebraska, due to meltwater and ice chunks contained within it. A Facebook post from his wife’s aunt led to more and more people messaging Collin, and he said he wasn’t the only one.

“There was nothing [officially] put out, just a bunch of pilots started showing up to Millard Airport, south of Omaha, and started offering rides back and forth from Fremont,” Collin said. “Then came [the question] how do we get supplies out there. The only dry place was the airport. A couple of the FBOs around the airport opened their doors to be drop-off points.”

Silverhawk Aviation in Lincoln, Oracle Aviation in Omaha, and Fremont Aviation in Fremont were some of the main FBOs involved, with roughly 30 pilots flying hundreds of people in and out of Fremont.

“This was really necessary,” Collin said. “If not for the airplanes these people wouldn’t have a way to get back and forth to their families.”

Mark Gaffney, EAA 836501, was another pilot who dedicated his time to helping out. He first loaded his 1959 Cessna 172 with supplies and went with his family to drop them off, but soon got called in to do more.

“Sunday morning I got a call from a buddy of mine that said get up there. So I got up there, and I’d never seen anything like it,” Mark said.

Mark first primarily flew between Lincoln and Fremont, but on Monday he started making trips from Millard Airport by Omaha to the stranded folks in Fremont. He took supplies and first responders into Fremont, and then brought stranded people out so they could reunite with families or simply get to safety.

“I’ve always marveled at pilots in general and people coming together to help each other out … it still blew me away,” Mark said. “Everybody just jumped in their airplanes and went. I took the day off Monday, we did what we needed to do.”

A lot of the people that Mark flew back or forth had never been in a GA aircraft before, but any trepidation they may have had wasn’t enough for them to pass on the opportunity to do what they had to do in a time of such crisis.

“It was emotional, just to see it,” Mark said. “The terminal, the people there were desperate. I flew a lot of people who had never flown on an airplane before, and I don’t think I flew anybody who had flown on a small airplane. When the Titanic is sinking, you get on any boat you see, you don’t care.”

Collin ended up organizing some pilots through social media, including some who offered to come from neighboring states, and he said that selflessness was a silver lining of this dire circumstance in his opinion.

“I think the coolest story isn’t about an individual or anything, it’s about the pilot community as a whole,” Collin said. “Talk about a group of people that’s selfless, that’s pretty cool. They drop everything, take off work, and say hey here’s my plane.”

By early this week, the water had subsided enough for crews to make some roads usable. The supplies that were being carried by aircraft such as Cessnas, Pipers, and RVs were able to be loaded into a semi and driven into town. Thankfully, Fremont was no longer waterlocked.

The help from pilots in the area ensured that those who were stranded there had some supplies, and anyone who needed to get out was able to. Collin said the event was a poignant reminder that people are all on the same team.

“All you ever hear about is how our country is divided,” Collin said. “Something like this happens and all of a sudden there’s no division.”

Mark assisted when a devastating tornado hit Oklahoma several years ago, and said he felt the flooding was harder to deal with because of the isolation involved.

“It was devastating to see that,” Mark said of the tornado damage. “But this was worse because you’re cut off. In Oklahoma, they were bringing in semis. This was just GA, that’s all they had.”

Luckily, that proved to be enough for the folks in Fremont, Nebraska.

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