CONTRA COSTA COUNTY—When talking to local pilots DeWitt Hodge and Stephen Tucker, it’s hard to say which shines through the most: their love of flying or their enthusiasm for helping people.
In September, the pair gathered with a small group of comrades at Concord’s Buchanan Field Airport to complete the last step in becoming California Disaster Airlift Response Team (DART) operators.
For the mission, a plane traveled 60 miles from Byron Airport to San Martin Airport near Gilroy early that morning, then took on several boxes of face shields to fly to Buchanan. The Concord group met the two pilots on the tarmac and then delivered the personal protective equipment (PPE) by car to two local aid groups.
Once the trip was certified, Contra Costa DART became operational.
“Everyone in the group performed flawlessly,” said Tucker, the new group’s executive director.
Helping out after Loma Prieta
Various pilot associations and individuals have moved forward the idea of a volunteer airlift assistance program over the years. But Tucker points to the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake as when the idea likely was born. Landslides cut off roads to Watsonville for weeks, and volunteer pilots delivered urgently needed supplies and medical help to the heavily damaged area.
After many years trying to solidify standards for a volunteer air assistance program, one finally coalesced in 2014. Some of the pilots involved in the Watsonville operation worked on forming what is now the California DART network (CalDART).
A volunteer board of directors leads a statewide group of volunteer DART operators and supporters at seven California airports. Pilots and administrative staff organize and provide free air transportation during emergencies, following strict guidelines. They can fly people and material to and from any of California’s approximately 250 public airports as well as neighboring states.
Hodge, a pilot for 15 years, is in charge of operations for CC DART. He calls the Concord location “critical to the S.F. Bay Area and in a unique position to help our neighbors in need.”
He says the airport could easily become a central base of operations for helicopters from Travis Air Force Base and local airplane pilots if needed to route supplies throughout the area. And the private pilots of CC DART are now ready to be part of that chain.
“Say you need some supplies moved from this location to that quickly. CalDART would decide which operators are needed and coordinate the effort. One might fly it partway to another airport. Then those goods get loaded onto another airplane to fly the rest of the way,” explains Hodge, who retired from a 37-year career in IT and started his own aviation company in Concord five years ago.
Fostering a love of flying
While active in Concord’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in recent years, Tucker heard about the effort to create CC DART. He jumped at the chance to be part of it. At CERT, he met others like Peg Gardner. Gardner is well known in the community as a tireless organizer for CERT, the Community Animal Response Team, the ham radio community and the Red Cross. She connected Tucker with Hodge, and the fledgling group had its first meeting on Sept. 11, 2018.
Tucker radiates pride when describing the potential this group has to help the community.
“If you look at what’s happening right now with COVID and the wildfires, things can happen really fast. DART is like the Minutemen – ready to go any time,” he says. “We are training. We have a plan. And we will be prepared.”
Now the core group of about 20 needs more volunteers as pilots, ground crew and board members. Tucker wants to find experienced individuals to fill their ranks. But he also aims to foster a younger group who might help out in the future.
Tucker has been flying for 40 years. He discovered his love of flying when he joined an aircraft club in high school and a pilot gave him the chance to experience the excitement of airplane flight. Later, he joined the military and became a pilot.
He now coordinates the Young Eagles program in Concord, which has given kids age 8 to 17 the chance to experience flying for free since 1992.
“Fifty-two years ago, a pilot gave me a flight and it changed my life,” he says. “Being a pilot and flying is a gift. What could be better than to have a love of something like this and share it with others who might one day use it to help their community?”