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Connecting flights

Connecting flights

ORLANDO –The day beckoned blue and breezy out on the tarmac, and most pilots and passengers had already checked it out by the time they huddled at Showalter Flying Service to hear the pitch.

At times, Steve Merritt of Cary, N.C., sounded more like a travel guide hawking a tourist trip than a man on a mission.

Steve Merrit checks bn Bahamas Habitat pilots on the tarmac
Steve Merritt, president of the nonprofit Bahamas Habitat organization, checks on volunteers preparing for launch at Showalter Flying Service in Orlando. Photos by Susan Green.

“Once you see the blue water, you’ll want to come back,” predicted the veteran pilot and president of the nonprofit relief outfit Bahamas Habitat.

“You can see it from the moon. … It is that different, and it is absolutely beautiful.”

But the “to-die-for” scenery he promised was not the reason more than 30 people signed up for the 14th
Bahamas Habitat Fly In last week, and Merritt didn’t worry too much about sugarcoating the details.

“As aviators, we get to know the people of the real Bahamas,” he said. “This is not Atlantis. This is not the One&Only [Ocean] Club. This is rural Bahamas where the people who live are in need.”

Pilots on the three-day mission for Bahamas Habitat last week not only volunteered their time and aircraft to take supplies to isolated and impoverished people outside of the tourist resorts but shelled out their own money for fuel, lodging, visitors’ permits and passports.

Despite Merritt’s assurances that no one could miss the target destination awash in deep turquoise, pilots also clutched detailed flight plans on paper or iPads. And they knew there could be a hassle factor: customs.

Waiting to taxi down the runway were 10 single- and twin-engine planes stuffed with cargo, ranging from refurbished computers and car parts to coffeemakers and sewing supplies destined for the Zion Children’s Home or Bahamas Methodist Habitat, a ministry of the Bahamas Conference of the Methodist Church.

Customs officials in the islands offer a $100 exemption per passenger – totaling $400 for most of the fly-in crews – for incoming merchandise, and friendly negotiation to keep from being overcharged was a good idea, Merritt said. But volunteers should be prepared to pay if necessary and seek reimbursement later.

“This is literally ‘Forrest Gump’ and a box of chocolates,” Merritt warned, referring to the phrase made famous on film. “You don’t have any idea what’s going to happen.”

Bob Showalter shows plane stuffed with cargo before takeoff for the Bahamas
Bob Showalter, above, shows the cargo bins of his twin-engine plane stuffed with donations for a Bahamas Habitat mission. Below, Grover McNair of Raleigh prepares to climb into the cockpit to fly supplies and volunteers to people in need in the Bahamas.
Grover McNair prepares to take the pilot's seat

The outpouring of donations requested for the mission trip was so great that Bob Showalter, who operates the flying service and attends Asbury UMC, Maitland, made two flights himself before the fly-in to take the overflow to Eleuthera.

The group also planned to invest physical labor. Among other assignments, Bahamas Habitat volunteers were expecting to help with a ground-breaking for a new vocational center in Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas.

Volunteers hailed from North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, Missouri and New York, as well as Florida. Merritt said the turnout and donated cargo items were the highest ever for Bahamas Habitat, which has been flying missions to Haiti and the Bahamas since 2006.

It was an exciting moment for Katharine Zimmerman, Bahamas Habitat vice president and a member of First UMC, Orlando. She and her father, Gene, former pastor at First UMC, have been doing mission work in the islands for more than half a century and recently had the satisfaction of seeing a children's home established in a remote spot where lack of transportation infrastructure means hefty price tags for even ordinary items like food and clothing.

“To see the children grow and thrive has been very exciting,” she said.

Sometimes small gifts, like a box of neckties requested by a local pastor, can make a big difference in self-esteem for people trying to better themselves, Zimmerman said. She recalled how the pastor taught some boys to knot the ties to achieve a professional look, and how the young men beamed with pride when she next saw them decked out in their accessories.

“Who would think that a tie would bring that much impact and joy?”

She said the mission work allows her to bring experience in fundraising and community development to bear, and she sees her personal gift as “finding people in the Bahamas and connecting them to people here to make things happen.”

Scott Hudson, a pilot for 22 years and a member of Bethesda UMC in Maryland, works in information technology for a large financial corporation in Washington, D.C. The corporation allows him to refurbish computer equipment every two or three years and donate it to missions in the Bahamas and Haiti.

“What I like about it is [that] it’s a very cohesive group,” Hudson said of Bahamas Habitat. “When you make it to the island and wake up [the next] morning, everybody has one thing on their mind: It’s to go out and see what you can do. … It’s cohesive and it’s very motivating.”

He said he also enjoys the optimism of the island people who don’t seem to know they’re at a disadvantage.

“You see them with a smile and persistence and a positive outlook,” Hudson said. “You tend to think, who in the U.S., in those circumstances, would have that positive outlook? It’s an education.”

More than 30 people participated in the 14th Bahamas Habitat Fly In on Feb. 20 in Orlando. Katharine Zimmerman, the organization's vice president, and Scott Hudson, a volunteer pilot from Bethesda, Md., discuss their mission in this video by Don Youngs.

Tim Cage of Elizabeth City, N.C., was making plans to check on a rooster when he got to Eleuthera. Of two dozen chicks he managed to get through customs last year, six were traded for vegetables, one fell victim to a snake, and most are supplying eggs to residents in need, volunteers said. Cage has been told that one of the chicks grew into a fine rooster.

Usually he also shares his auto repair expertise in some way, Cage said.

“This year I don’t know what I’ll do.”

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.