When a natural disaster strikes a community, help can’t come too soon, to fill the needs, large and small. There are big organizations such as FEMA, the National Guard, and the American Red Cross to help meet the big needs such as medical care and rebuilding. The mission of pilots for Hope on Short Final is to meet the smaller yet vitally important needs of disaster victims, bringing relief supplies as soon as small planes can land on an airstrip.
Eric Hymes, volunteer pilot and one of the founders of Hope on Short Final (HoSF) describes himself as “a 23-year veteran of corporate America in the medical device industry and a serial entrepreneur.” He likes to joke that he’s a second-generation pilot: his son got him into flying. Hymes started taking his son to airshows when he was 5 years old, because they both loved to “nerd out” over aviation. His son went on to become a pilot, attending the aviation program at Middle Tennessee State University. In 2019, he came home with his private pilot’s license and said, “Dad, you need to do this!”
Before long, Hymes was out doing a discovery flight in a Diamond DA40 at his local airport in North Georgia, and the rest was history. He got his pilot’s license in September 2021. He loved flying, but then, “I ran out of places to go for a $100 hamburger. I was trying to decide what was next, and I started looking around on social media.” He ran across a call for pilots to fly aid into central Kentucky in the aftermath of an EF-4 tornado, the ninth longest ever recorded. There were photos of the destruction, and Hymes says, “I’d never seen anything like it. It was devastating, and I felt the calling to help. So, talking with my pilot nerd friends, I wondered whether we could do a fundraiser and fly supplies in there.” The group set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for relief supplies and raised $8,000 in a couple of weeks. Next, he put out a call for pilots to deliver the supplies to Kentucky and was overwhelmed with offers from pilots wanting to donate flights.
With pilots and money for supplies, the next challenge was how to get the supplies delivered on the ground. Hymes looked up contact information for the manager of Madisonville Regional Airport, in the heart of the tornado-devastated area. Emily Herron, the manager, jumped into action, getting volunteers out to clear debris from the runway and helping to coordinate distribution of the relief supplies to local police, fire, and other municipal services for delivery to families in need. A third-generation pilot—she flies a plane that her grandfather purchased in 1949—she became an advocate for her community, helping Hymes’ group to understand that needs after a disaster are ongoing. So, Hymes and friends took up the cause. Hope on Short Final registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation in March 2022, and Herron is now a member of its volunteer board.
“We learned there cannot be too much of a response to a weather event. There are multiple organizations involved in disaster relief, and all are needed. Our mission is to provide emergency relief supplies to a community affected by natural weather disasters within hours, as soon as the runway is clear and weather permits. It’s something our volunteer pilots are well-positioned to do. Our focus is on supplies for kids: diapers, wipes, warm clothing such as kid’s jackets, shelf-stable food, and anything else that’s lightweight.”
Hymes says HoSF won’t be short of pilots willing to pitch in. “General aviation is one of the stranger experiences I’ve ever had. You hop in an aircraft, go to a new place, and your brothers and sisters are there to greet you. They want to help.” He strongly suggests that volunteers have instrument ratings. Despite the name, short take-off and landing skills aren’t required: pilots won’t be asked to land on grass strips or very short runways.
What’s needed most right now are funds to buy relief supplies, so Hymes and fellow volunteers are working hard on the ground. Their goal for 2023 is to raise around $100,000. Each mission costs about $2,500 for relief supplies. Pilots donate their flights and time, and HoSF is staffed by volunteers, so almost all funds can go directly to relief. Hymes is tapping other pilots to engage in fundraising, and he’s pounding the pavement (or tarmac) for grants and corporate sponsors. His team is even planning to give a TED talk later in 2023 about their experience and what’s needed in the wake of a natural disaster. They are determined to be ready when the next disaster strikes: “Our next relief mission is 100% on people taking action to support our organization.”
Hymes has high hopes for his fledgling organization, and he has advice for others who want to make a difference: “If you want to help, you have to take a step. Even though it might seem a little uncomfortable, just go do it. There’s no shortage of opportunity. You don’t even have to be a pilot to engage; you could help with fundraising or coordination or transport on the ground.” But there’s a special incentive for pilots: “It’s so much more meaningful than showing up to the airport to practice maneuvers. There’s nothing like flying for a purpose.” And, he notes, his relief missions have had extra meaning: “It was amazing for me to share a cockpit with my son, with someone who said at 5 years old he would be a pilot, and he is.”