Appareo Pilot of the Year Award
Maria Rodriguez, Caribbean Buzz Helicopters, U.S. Virgin Islands
When the company Maria flew with for several years ago decided to move from the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) to the mainland United States, she chose to stay and open her own helicopter companies: Caribbean Buzz and Caribbean Buzz Management. As an owner/operator, Maria and her husband manage a multi-aircraft operation that provides helicopter services throughout the Caribbean and yacht support operations around the globe, specializing in remote/adventure helicopter and seaplane support. This was a busy year for Caribbean Buzz and Maria. She even flew former U.S. President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this year.
In late summer 2017, Maria’s home in the USVI was in the path of both major Caribbean hurricanes — Hurricane Irma first, followed by Hurricane Maria a few weeks later. With roads impassable after Hurricane Irma, Maria walked from the safe shelter to her home, which was battered and flooded but still standing. She hiked for an additional two hours to reach the airport. Her hangar was damaged, but the helicopters had survived unscathed. She rolled them onto the ramp and immediately began to fly support missions wherever she could. “Every evac flight started with tears,” says Maria, “but ended with smiles!"
As Hurricane Maria bore down upon her home again, Maria moved her helicopters to a reinforced hangar in Puerto Rico. As quickly as possible after the storm passed, she returned to the USVI to again fly support missions.
In both instances, Maria documented the devastation to the islands with her camera, posting hundreds of photographs to social media. In turn, these images — often the only photos coming from the region and without compensation to Maria — were picked up by media outlets and reproduced throughout the world. Her images helped to convey the devastation sustained by her island home to millions around the world, resulting in forewarning to others in the hurricane’s path and waves of support for the devastated islands.
Rodriguez does not seek the spotlight; she simply continues to serve her community through flight and photographs. She returns daily to the cockpit, flying support and relief missions (for 28 straight days at one point) and is still flying and filming today to support those in need.