Contracted Canadian aircrews among first outsiders to witness Irma's wrath

Canadian pilots working for Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace and Dutch troops are flying relief missions into St. Maarten, trying to get ahead of the next storm. They were among the first on the scene after Hurricane Irma flattened the popular tourist destination, which has a population of 75,000.

'Pictures really don’t give the impact of what I saw,' says Canadian who flew in Irma's wake

This aerial view of the destruction on St. Maarten was captured from a contracted Dutch coast guard patrol plane. The aircraft is piloted by Canadians working for Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace. (Wade Fleet)

It was sunrise on Thursday when Wade Fleet arrived in the cloud-ripped skies over St. Maarten.

He had followed in the devastating wake of Hurricane Irma and the air around the popular Caribbean resort island was still choppy and turbulent.

As he swung his Dash 8 patrol plane low over the hills and forests of the island, the dull daybreak gradually revealed the awful extent of the devastation.

"Pictures really don't give the impact of what I saw," Fleet told CBC News.

He and seven other Canadian pilots, working for Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace, fly two of the turboprop planes under contract to the Dutch coast guard.

They are among the first Canadians to see the devastation.

The crews, led by Fleet, launched into the predawn darkness from their base in Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela, as the powerful Category 5 hurricane released its grip on the eastern Caribbean early Thursday.

Footage taken by pilots working for Provincial Airways shows the devastation on St. Maarten as a result of Hurricane Irma's 300 km/h winds 1:00

Their first mission was reconnaissance.

They overflew Barbuda, St. Barts, Saba, St. Eustatius, and finally St. Maarten, an island whose territory is divided between the Netherlands and France (St. Martin).

Debris as far as the eye could see

Having flown over Haiti during previous hurricane disasters, Fleet knew what to expect, but the magnitude of what unfolded beneath his wings in the morning light was breathtaking.

"It's an island that virtually doesn't have infrastructure anymore," he said in a telephone interview from the company's base of operations.

"There is no power. There is no running water. Most of the supermarkets were completely destroyed. So, there is not really any food."

His plane swooped down over grand, luxury yachts bashed ashore and reduced to matchsticks.

'It's an island that virtually doesn't have infrastructure any more,' says pilot Wade Fleet. (Wade Fleet)

He banked over spacious, concrete tourist hotels with entire chunks clawed out of them by the 300 km/h winds, waves and debris.

"They're just gone," he said.

Fleet said he is aware a number of visitors chose to ride out the storm on the island rather than flee, and the Royal Dutch Marines, whom his pilots delivered in the second mission later in the day, received a flashlight SOS signal as the sun was going down from the fifth floor of one of the hotels.

"I think it's going to be a little while before we know what the death toll is," said Fleet, who started his flying career as bush pilot in Canada's North. "A lot of people are trapped."

The island's power plant is heavily damaged and "will take a long time to get up and running," he said.

From the air, there were signs of life.

"You can see people on the street. They're trying to move stuff off the street," he said. "As we flew over, you'd see people waving."

The scene reminded him of television images of the pulverized war zone streets of Aleppo, Syria.

This Dutch coast guard Dash 8 patrol plane is contracted from Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace. Two of the company's planes have been flying relief missions to hurricane-flattened St. Maarten. (Wade Fleet)

The outer wall on the island's prison has been breached, and while Fleet said he doesn't know if there had been any escapes, his relief flights have carried a number of Dutch troops and police.

Race against time

There are 75,000 residents on St. Maarten and another hurricane — the Category 4 Jose — is bearing down on the region.

The focus of each of the follow missions, on Thursday and Friday, was rushing relief supplies — food, water and tents — to the residents before the next storm hits.

Dutch marines have managed to clear the runway at the island's main airport, but fuel shortages hamper their efforts to move around on the ground.

They are racing against the clock, said Fleet.

People who survived Irma face exposure and further peril, a notion that brought with it a pang of guilt as he surveyed the wreckage.

Wade Fleet and other Canadian pilots working for Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace have been flying two turboprop planes under contract to the Dutch coast guard. (Wade Fleet)

"It's easy for me. You're flying over this and you get to go home and see your family," Fleet said.

"I think about the people down there. When the sun goes down it's pitch black. There's no power."

Irma is expected to slam into Florida over the weekend and draw away media attention from the tiny islands that have already felt the hurricane's wrath.

"My fear is, the fantastic people I know in those islands are going to be forgotten in the wake of that as the story becomes bigger, if you know what I mean," he said.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.