If you can’t drive, you might as well fly.
At least 10 local pilots — perhaps more — offered disaster support to about 30 people who were directly impacted by the mudslides that buried Highway 58 between the Sand Canyon area of Tehachapi and Mojave Friday morning, forcing the closure of the major east-west Kern County artery.
“We work out of Mojave, and we knew people who were stuck in Mojave,” Andrew Angelotti said of how he and fellow pilot Dustin Moshier became involved. “We woke up this morning and knew people were going to be stuck in the mudslide, and they were going to need help.”
Angelotti said he found other local pilots thinking the same after receiving a call from Ken Hetge, owner of Recover Your Cub, who initiated an organized airlift support effort from his maintenance, repair and aircraft rental business, which he operates out of Tehachapi Municipal Airport.
“We have a lot of friends who work down at Mojave or at Edwards,” Hetge said. “We were all made aware that the road were going to be closed for possibly three or four days.”
Hetge said his wife, Della Dusel, suggested they help people get moving again by spreading the word to other local pilots that they would donate their aircraft, gas and expenses associated with flying stranded motorists.
Hetge said he and his wife got the “kids” together — a fond reference to the group of local, young pilots they have grown to know and love, and started firing up their airplanes.
Other pilots who participated included flight instructor Ed Dunlap, Bill McCune, Dave Robins, Brian Maisler, Jake “Danger” Riley, Chris Higbee and Ryan Young.
About 30 people were flown in an estimated 15 to 20 flights. Most were picked up at the Mojave Air and Space Port and taken to the Tehachapi Municipal Airport; however, others received airlifts from Tehachapi to Mojave, including one Los Angeles woman who was rescued after being swept away by the mudslide.
“I took three women who had been caught in the mudslide,” Angelotti said. “One of them had a hospital band still on her wrist because she was pulled by the water through a barbed wire fence. It was amazing to see just how worn out these people were. It was a photo moment when we got to Mojave and she jumped out of the airplane and ran up to her husband and hugs him.”
Most of the passengers airlifted out of Tehachapi were brought to the airport by American Red Cross volunteers.
McCune said he received an early morning phone call from a friend who was stranded in Mojave and was trying to find a way home. After receiving a second call from another local pilot, McCune said he learned about the spontaneous airlift effort, which the pilots have since dubbed “The Mojave Airlift of 2015.”
Hetge said he plans to keep offering airlifts as long as they are needed, depending on the weather.
“We are at the mercy of the weather. Flood warnings for all of Kern County are going off right now,” Hetge said. “When the clouds touch the wind turbines on the top of the mountain, that’s when we have to stop flying.”
Said McCune, “Three days ago I was just thinking what would happen if all of the roads were to close, and strangely enough it happened. It just goes to show how important the airport is to the local community.”
”This is a very good demonstration of what a group of pilots and a handful of pilots can do when we have a disaster,“ McCune said. ”This little airport with this little group of people made a difference in the lives of about 30 individuals.“
Said Moshier, ”I don’t think the Mojave towers have seen this much traffic in a long time.“
Jan Sprague, of California City, has created a GoFundMe account to help offset the cost spent on the volunteer airlifts.
”Flying and maintaining an aircraft has to be extremely costly and they asked for nothing,“ wrote Sprague on the donation website. ”I feel that we as a community can give back to this fabulous group of pilots to help offset their costs and to show our appreciation!“
To make a GoFundMe donation, visit gofundme.com/TehachapiPilots.