As the plane approaches Haiti, pilot Jim Klepper points to the harbor below, Baie de Port-au-Prince. Visible through the left window is the unmistakably massive red and white shape of the USNS Comfort, the Navy's still-new hospital ship with 1,000 beds, all filled with victims of the Jan. 12 earthquake. To the right, the mountains rise above the cities of Carrefour and Port-au-Prince. The mountains too are suddenly a shelter, housing those driven out of the eastern edges of the cities and into the hills with no homes to return to.
Easing toward the tiny, one-runway airport ahead, Klepper finally achieves radio contact with the makeshift air traffic control tower; sometimes the contact is with someone actually in the tower, other times simply with a soldier on a walkie-talkie. He receives clearance to land and thinks about his first flight down, just two days after the quake, when he'd flown down on a literal wing and a prayer, not knowing if anyone below would be able to answer his landing request or not.
Every foot dropped in altitude brings the city below into focus. What looked like a concrete parking lot from 5,000 feet is eventually revealed as blocks and blocks of endless rubble. Destroyed buildings, schools and homes, flattened as if they've been stepped on from above. Roads that once appeared to be choked with traffic are actually clogged with people on foot, following every lead and every rumor of locations where food and water are being distributed.
But what catches the eyes of Klepper's passengers are the pillars of gray smoke. One, two, three … they rise from the corners of the sprawling capital city. At first they are assumed to be the fires burning in crushed buildings.
"No," someone is quick to explain. "That's where they are burning the bodies of the victims."
"It hurts your heart every time," says Klepper, who is preparing to embark on his second full week of Haitian relief missions. "I don't think it would matter if I did this nonstop every day for the rest of the year. It would still hurt every single time you come over those mountains and see that destruction below you."
Then he pauses, swallows and nods his head matter-of-factly. "So we'll just keep going down there until the hurting stops."
"Just the right thing to do"
Klepper is the chief pilot at Hendrick Motorsports. Throughout the NASCAR Sprint Cup season he and his fellow pilots crisscross the United States, steering their virtual air force of four planes and one helicopter, responsible for keeping team owner Rick Hendrick, his family and his employees in constant motion. On race weekends, the aircraft are packed with as many as 130 crew members, from crew chiefs to tire changers.
Since Jan. 15 those planes have been packed with surgeons, search and rescue teams and Haitians themselves, lifted from the destruction and carried over the Caribbean Sea to start their new lives as Americans. Two planes, two flights a day, nearly every seat filled each way, bringing fresh help in and hauling exhausted help out.
It all began with a phone call on the morning of Jan. 13, little more than half a day after the quake, which registered a mind-numbing 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale, the modern version of the Richter scale. Hendrick, horrified by what he was seeing on television, placed a call to his son-in-law, HMS general manager Marshall Carlson. The team had provided planes to carry supplies to the Gulf Coast in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The boss wanted to know if his planes could be used for a similar mission now.
"The first e-mail I received from Marshall was at 9:20 a.m. [Jan. 14]," recalls Dave Dudley, Hendrick's director of aviation. "I contacted Jim [Klepper] and told him to see if he could come up with a crew that would volunteer for a possible trip down there. In the meantime I started doing research and came across Missionary Flights International [MFI]. I e-mailed them and got an automatic response back basically saying that they were swamped and would get back to me when they could. So I called the phone number. I got a busy signal for an hour. When I finally got someone on the phone, a man named Harold Martin, I could tell he was ready to hustle me off the phone and get back to his work. But when I said the words 'Saab 2000, 45-seater' I think that got his attention."
Yes, it did. In the meantime, Klepper had e-mailed the 23 full-time employees of Hendrick Aviation to see who would be willing to volunteer for a mission that hadn't yet been planned or might not even be possible.
All 23 replied, "yes."
"Less than two days later we were on approach to Haiti," Klepper says, still amazed at the thought.
Adds Dudley: "Shortly after that, I was flying home with an orphan asleep on my lap."
Flight attendant Dawn Maschhaupt -- whose husband Robbie is the hauler driver for Elliott Sadler's Sprint Cup ride for the Richard Petty Motorsports team -- still beams when she talks about bringing a little orphan boy onto a flight back to Florida a few days earlier. His name was Michael and his adoptive mother had come down with the Hendrick plane to pick up her new son. The boy, who looked to be about 2 years old, melted hearts as he smiled and waved to the people standing around him at the base of the airplane staircase. He made everyone cry when she carried him onto the plane and he started reacting giddily to a new sensation blowing down across his face.
It was likely his first time in air conditioning.
"It still amazes me when people ask why we do it," Hendrick said when asked the question during last week's preseason media tour. "We do it because it's just the right thing to do."
The cheeseburger man
Hendrick's three Saabs rotate in teams of two, leaving their home at the Concord Regional Airport and heading south to Fort Pierce, Fla., home of MFI's staging area. The hangars on the Atlantic coast are a constant flurry of activity as cargo planes are loaded with supplies, passenger planes are loaded with personnel and a waiting area is perpetually lined with volunteer medical and rescue specialists, waiting their turn to head south.
There's an orthopedic surgeon from Houston, a pair of trauma surgeons from New Jersey and a neurosurgeon from Portland, Ore. They will work in the streets of Port-au-Prince in one-week shifts, some tasked with saving lives from tabletops on crumbled street curbs, others stationed under a city-sized cluster of pop-up tents and storage canisters set up on the edges of the airport runway.
Many clearly have no idea what they are walking into. Some wear ties and dress shoes. One female surgeon is in heels. By the end of their time in Haiti they will have been exposed to images of crushed bodies, unimaginable injuries and, as one aid worker described it, the smell of death.
"I am able to help," one clearly nervous young doctor says on his first flight down, "so I should."
When they land at Port-au-Prince, the airport runway is a parking lot. U.S. Army choppers hammer overheard, towing supplies in long nets slung underneath. The white Hendrick planes, trimmed in red and black, park alongside dozens of smaller private aircraft, a handful of commercial airliners and a long line of pot-bellied C-130s. They bear the military marks of the U.S., China, Turkey, the nations of Europe … nearly every country one can think of. The flags at the terminal have flown at half-staff since the quake.
Making sense of it all is another mission organization, the Mission Aviation Fellowship, or MAF. They work hand in hand with the MFI by providing ground and logistical assistance. Zipping through the chaos behind the wheel of a forklift loaded with supplies is James Collins of Hopetown, Fla., an MAF worker. Every time a Hendrick plane lands, they are greeted by Collins and his tireless enthusiasm. They call him "the cheeseburger man."
"You find yourself really looking forward to getting in there to see those folks," Klepper says. "You want to do whatever you can to make sure they keep going."
Last week, Klepper asked Collins if there was anything he needed. They'd already brought one MAF worker a cowboy hat because he'd lost his favorite hat and his neck and head were burning in the tropical sun. Others had been able to catch their second winds thanks to a cooler full of cold Pepsi hauled in on HMS flights. But Collins started rattling off a list of supplies and gear. "No, James," Klepper interrupted. "What do you need?"
"Man, I would kill for a cheeseburger."
The next day Klepper jumped off the plane and handed Collins two McDonald's cheeseburgers that he'd picked up in Florida. Collins pulled out his pocketknife, cut them into pieces and handed them out to his coworkers. So on his next trip Klepper brought another McDonald's bag. This one had 20 burgers in it. "Now," Jim said to James. "You have to eat one."
"We're just the point of the spear," Dudley says. "The people on the ground are the ones that will turn the tide of this thing."
Until the hurting stops
But to be on that heartbreaking ground, they have to be brought there. And when their shifts are done, they have to be brought home.
"There is an interesting phenomenon that is beginning to happen after a week and a half of flying missions," Dudley says, every sentence measured like one would expect from a former member of the Army's legendary 82nd Airborne Division and a former longtime commercial airline pilot. "Now we are bringing people back after they've spent a week or more dealing with situations and gathering memories that people like us can't even fathom. And when they get on the plane to come home and they sit in those comfortable seats, in the air conditioning with a bottle of water, it's their first moment of reality -- our reality -- in a week."
When that happens, the emotional release is like a waterfall. They sob and then they talk, eager to share every memory and story, both horrific and inspiring, to the first person that will listen. In other words, the employees of Hendrick Motorsports.
"That's a challenge and a responsibility that I had not anticipated," Dudley admits. "But it may very well be the most important part of our job. To listen and to share. To help them deal with helping the people of Haiti deal with this tragic situation. It's our duty."
That duty tugs at Dudley, Klepper, Maschhaupt and their coworkers every waking moment of every day. They all returned home late last Friday night and each admitted spending their weekends wrestling with the guilt of not being back on the point of that spear.
Laying in a comfortable bed, eating breakfast, even going to church, doesn't feel right.
That's why they were all back on duty Sunday afternoon, parking outside Hangar H at the Concord Regional Airport and rolling their luggage into the terminal just as they do every weekend of the NASCAR season. But on race weekends, their families and Marshall Carlson aren't lined up along the runway to send them off with photos, waves and blown kisses.
Now they are not alone in their efforts. On Sunday, one of Joe Gibbs Racing's planes joined the mission. Michael Waltrip Racing has a plane delivering supplies. And late last week the sanctioning body donated $250,000 to MFI through its NASCAR Foundation.
All of the teams are already working on plans to keep the flights running even after the NASCAR season begins in less than two weeks.
"This is definitely not Talladega or Richmond," Dudley says with a laugh, his hand resting on a stack of e-mails from his fellow Hendrick Motorsports employees. The message on top is from Lance McGrew, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief.
"No," Kleppler interjects. "But it's still a race. A race to help these people before it's too late."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.