The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 21, 2010

Downs Foods pilot flying workers to Haiti

MANKATO — Alex White wasn’t surprised by what he saw Wednesday when the pilot touched down at the airport in Haiti.

He had seen plenty of news coverage the past few days of the devastation created by the massive earthquake. But seeing it firsthand was certainly striking.

“The airport is completely in shambles,” said White of Gaylord. “Communication is terrible.”

White has been a pilot for Downs Foods, a poultry processing plant with offices in Mankato, for more than 11 years. As chief pilot, his job is to fly company executives in the corporate jet between various company offices, including Oklahoma City and St. Petersburg, Fla.

White flies occasionally for another company in Florida, and through those contacts, he was asked to fly medical people into Haiti through Agape Flights, an independent Christian ministry based in Venice, Fla. White mentioned the trip to Richard Downs, owner of Downs Foods, who then offered the company’s private jet for the trip. Downs is also donating food.

White and his co-pilot, Tad Hall of Clearwater, Fla., flew a handful of medical people into Haiti. They have been approved by the Red Cross to assist in relief efforts.

The only reason White could get into the country is because Agape Flights has been flying in and out of Haiti doing relief work for years. The majority of other planes coming in and out are that of the military.

White and Hall were at the airport walking around the ramp for about 45 minutes. The buildings at the airport are still standing, but there are cracks in the structures and many of the windows are broken out. Yet, still, the buildings are being used, he said.

White and Hall took six people, including medical professionals, back to the United States after refueling in the Dominican Republic.

“You can fly in on a flight plan,” said White, a 1991 graduate of Minnesota State University’s aviation program. “But when you leave, you’re on your own.”

The lack of flight communication didn’t make White nervous. But he did have to be extra vigilant until he reached the U.S.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “There’s chaos.”

White has been asked to fly to Haiti again Saturday and Monday. Details are pending, but White is willing to return if needed.

“I’m just glad to help out any way I could,” he said.

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