the lost american RELIEF FLYING CHAPTER 14

EDITOR'S NOTE: When he disappeared, Fred Cuny was at work on several books including a
manuscript that was found in his laptop computer that deals with his love of
flying. It confirms what many have long thought: Cuny was drawn to his work in
disaster and humanitarian relief work in large part because it meant he would
have many opportunities to fly. Besides getting one to a disaster, there also
are other ways planes can assist in relief work -  as Cuny reveals in the
following chapter.


Few of my non-flying friends can understand the fascination and love that I have for flying. To most of my colleagues airplanes are a noisy and polluting necessity of transportation. To many of the rural people in the conflict-ridden Third World, airplanes are nothing but messengers of death. The sleek F-16s, Mirages and MIGs that pirouette so beautifully at airshows around the world and to which the industrialized nations seem so eager to sell to the debt-ridden Third World countries are more often than not used indiscriminately to kill, maim and burn simple peasants with only a minimal understanding of the political struggles swirling about them.

In my own eye, I see airplanes in a different light. A tool for humanitarian purposes. A means of tying together societies and peoples for establishing links of communication to those who would otherwise remain untouched from modern medicine, decent schooling and in times of disaster, adequate food supplies.

I've been fortunate. In my career I've been able to do a lot of flying. In the late '60s purely by happenstance I found myself working on the Biafran airlift. I had gone to Nigeria as part of a team that was to study how the international community could provide reconstruction assistance when the Biafran war came to an end. The only trouble was the Nigerians whom we went to see had no interest in talking about the end of the war. They had just been bombed by the errant Biafran Air Force and were in no mood to talk about peaceful reconstruction for a war that they knew was far from over. When we presented our credentials at the Ministry of Home Affairs and told them of our mission the Minister politely asked us to see our passport. Then while I was talking he opened to the appropriate page and proceeded to rip out the visa. "I believe the next plane out is tomorrow at 8 p.m. Be on it." he said.

Ironically the first plane out took us to Coutonou in the neighboring country of Dahomey (now Benin). By happenstance several of the international relief organizations flying supplies into beleaguered Biafra were operating from the airstrip at Coutonou. The International Committee of the Red Cross was there on a regular basis. Occasionally several other relief flights staged out of there when the airstrips that they were using in Gabon?? and the island of Fernando Po became overcrowded or politically sensitive.

The study I was working on was falling apart. I tried to salvage it by trying to carry out a study of the capacity of the relief organizations but they, too, were only interested in the present situation not the ultimate outcome. However, as I poked around in the workings of the group I became fascinated at the air operations. The head of the airlift of one of the relief groups asked if I could help out with operations planning and within a short time I was working on logistics as volunteer.

My work put me into close contact with many of the flight crews. I accompanied them on several flights into the airstrip at Foule a wide spot in the road and the logistical heart of the encircled rebel province. A fleet of aging vintage airliners including DC-4s, DC-6s the graceful tri-tailed Constellations were providing the lifeblood of the pilots. Food and medical supplies were flown in under cover of darkness. Landing on the road, quickly discharging their cargoes and taking off again to make the next flight. Originally there had been several airstrips but the federal forces had gradually closed them off and now only Uli and Enitsu were still operating.....

The whole operation was orchestrated by a fellow on the ground with a hand-held radio and jeep. In all probability the Nigerians could have closed down the operation had they really tried. A Russian radar trawler waited offshore sweeping the skies with its powerful radar to try and detect the airplanes as they crossed the coast and headed inland. They would radio news of our arrival to the Nigerian MIGs who would often try and intercept. The Nigerian pilots weren't competent and were rarely close for combat. The mercenaries that flew for them realized that if they shot the planes down and closed off the airlift they would be out of a job so they too managed to somehow avoid engaging our flights.

Periodically the federal armies would get close enough that their long-range artillery could shell the airstrip. Once they managed to hit one of the relief flights as it touched down. The gear collapsed and the plane skidded to a halt in the middle of the field. By all accounts that should have been the end of the war but the next day one of those MIGs flown by a mercenary flew over the strip, spotted the damaged plane in the middle of the runway, sized up the situation and then proceeded to bomb the plane into small enough bits that the cargo handlers at the airport could drag the remains off the runway and re-open the strip. Evidently the Nigerian High Command had a fit. The rumor was that they had threatened to shoot the pilot unless he did something to make up for his misdeeds. Several days later one of the relief planes was brought down. Up until that point there had been no shortage of pilots. Salaries were lucrative and everyone knew about the unwritten agreement between the relief pilots and the mercenaries flying for the other side. The shootdown changed the situation. Now it took a bit more guts to make the run and from then until the end of the war there were periodic pilot shortages.

In my logistics work with the air crews I let it be known that I was a pilot. Sure enough, one day when several of the crews had decided that they'd had enough someone asked if I wanted to fill in as a flight engineer on a DC-6. I flew several hops at the engineer panel generally reading the flight manual as I went along. The jobs were only temporary but they were exciting and I learned a lot in a short period of time. It was all perfectly illegal. No asked if I was rated as an engineer. I wasn't but no one asked and I didn't volunteer the info. Later, when I had a chance to fly as engineer on a C-160 Transall, someone asked what flight experience I had. "Engineer on a `6'," said I. No one ever checked. Technically, all our flights were illegal anyway. The only organization that had a legal right to operate was the International Committee of the Red Cross; all the rest were ad hoc flights being operated under the turned eyes of the local authorities.

Despite these few cavalier flights my main fascination was with the relief work on the ground and I find myself drawn to it so much that within a short time I was abandoning my career as a city planner to become a full-time disaster relief specialist. There's no question that I was drawn to the work partly because of the romance of flying and throughout the years it has proved to be one of the most valuable skills in my portfolio. Being a pilot has given me the opportunity to fly in many places but most important it has provided me with an ability and versatility that has doubled and even tripled my effectiveness in many situations.

In the eyes of many, flying in relief operations is equated with massive airlifts of food and other relief supplies during times of famine, drought or in the aftermath of cyclones and earthquakes. There is an image that the major donors seem to promote of C-130s, C-141s and even C-5s landing the catastrophe-stricken nation and discoursing...life-saving assistance.

At the height of the Ethiopian famine a small air fleet of C-130s, Transalls and Soviet built IL-28s were engaged in a massive shuttle of grains into the famine zones of Ethiopia. As the situation deteriorated it was decided to airdrop food to many remote sights. Small Politus Peurs??? operated by the ICRC would fly into the remote landing zones, lay markers out on the ground and then several hours later specially equipped C-130s would fly low over the strips and drop food out of the cargo doors. Approximately 100,000 tons of food was airdropped during 1985.

Ironically, the use of aircraft in this way is the ultimate sign that relief officials have failed in their primary task. That is, preventing the various disasters that the aircraft are called in to deal with. For example, famines don't just happen overnight. There is usually a build-up of many months and in the case of Ethiopia, several years, that can be detected with simple warning systems. The failure to recognize or heed the warnings, failure to react quickly for political reasons and the inability of the private relief organizations to mobilize large resources until they actually have pictures of starving children, mean that in the end it was necessary to turn to the aircrews of the Hercs?? and other transports.

The folly of air operations on this scale is easy to see. On a medium run of about 500 miles round trip, a Hercules can carry about 20 tons of food about half of what one large heavy transport truck can carry. Another way to calculate it is as follows - it takes ten tons of fuel to carry ten tons of food 500 miles. The cost of that fuel would buy a truck that can carry the same load many times. Per weight cost to operate the airlift in northern Ethiopia, that transport short country, could have replaced its entire heavy-duty trucking fleet, provided it with spare parts for three years and provided enough fuel to meet all relief needs for five years beyond that.

Even in Biafra the airlift that was the lifeblood of the country proved to be its own tormentor. As long as the airstrip stayed open the authorities had some hope that the war could be continued. Even as the number of internally displaced persons climbed into the millions a number far greater than could ever be served by the minuscule aging fleet of recepsts??/ the rebel authorities continued to hang on, polluting??/ themselves that a bigger airlift would be mobilized by public revulsion of the scenes of starving children. Ultimately, the "lifeline" became the line of slow strangulation.

This is not to say that there's not a place for the big planes. It's just that it's become too easy for our grand bound relief administrators to fall back on us pilots to save the day when they didn't take the decisions that were needed when they still had time to make good choices. In aviation today we focus a lot on teaching young pilots the art of decision making as a means of avoiding disaster. We teach our pilots how to recognize the scenario of events that leads them into trouble. For example take the case of the young pilot who has flown his family from Minneapolis to Kansas City for a weekend with his parents. After the Sunday meal it's time to return to Minneapolis. He checks with the weather service and finds that it's all clear along the route but there is a front approaching northern Minnesota with associated bad weather behind it. The pilot calculates that it will take four hours for him to fly from Kansas City to Minneapolis. At the speed at which the front is currently moving he will arrive in Minneapolis at sunset with an hour of fuel remaining and a full two hours before the front arrives. He hurries the families' goodbyes, pops them in the plane and takes off. The chances are 50/50 that he is going to die.

As he flies further north the front will increase its speed in its southward movement. He will likely encounter heavy winds much stronger than forecast with the result that he is likely to arrive at a point fifty miles from his home field without sufficient fuel reserves to go to an alternate, approaching the field in bad weather and in the dark.

Of course along the way the pilot can keep in touch with ground stations that will inform him of the weather. If he keeps track of his flight properly he will soon realize he is progressing much slower than he had anticipated. Halfway into the flight he has a choice. He can land and wait out the storm probably spending the night and maybe two or three at a local hotel. He can turn around and go back and stay with mom or he can press on. Chances are an inexperienced pilot will press on. What's for missing a day at work? The children missing a day at school and of course the costs at spending time at a local motel far from home all figure in to his decision making pattern. Turning around is the hardest. After all he's already come halfway. Going back would mean a retreat and of course, it too, has its associated costs.

What is happening as the pilot flies north is that he is running out of choices. The first choice to stay in Kansas City was the best choice and had the least associated costs. At the halfway point the choices start to become least worse choices. If he lands or turns around he pays a penalty with attendant costs but its still better than what awaits down the line. If he presses on he is faced with a situation where he has very few options - diverting to another field is out of the question because of the low fuel so he must shoot an approach. If he misses that he's out of options.

It's the same in relief operations. We can choose to help a country eliminate its vulnerabilities so that disasters don't happen. Famines can easily be averted through concentrated efforts at building food stockpiles, diversifying food production and providing emergency employment to sustain food price demand. India, which used to be wracked with famines every five or ten years, has managed to do it. There's no reason that most of the African countries can't follow suit. Houses don't have to fall apart in cyclones. A simple matter or design and bracing can protect most houses so that they ride out hurricanes just like they would a thunderstorm. Even the devastation caused by earthquakes can be mitigated to a large extent. If we only applied half of what we already know very few buildings would collapse.

Take the case of a food official in one of the famine prone countries. In the midst of a drought he learns that local people are migrating to the cities in search of work and food and that herdsmen are selling off their animals at a high rate. There are other attendant signs. Food prices are climbing, livestock prices are dropping and daily wages are declining. In short, a famine is just around the corner. If the relief official acts now he can probably save the day and prevent a full blown famine from occurring. He can take a variety of counter-famine moves, instigate widespread works programs to help sustain incomes and order and preposition food throughout the drought affected area. If he reacts to the early signs he is acting in the environment of best choice.

If, however, the relief official waits, he quickly begins to get into the least worst choice scenario. It can take up to six months to marshall and transport hundreds of thousands of tons of food. Not only must the food be delivered to the country, inland transport must be arranged, storage and distribution facilities built and manpower skilled and trained in distribution systems must be put in place. If our relief official decides to wait for a month he can still avert a famine but to do so he must now buy food from the local population and later replace it at a higher cost to keep the famine from affecting the people in the communities where food is now plentiful but will be in short supply after his purchases. In other words he has already widened the scope of his operations.

If he waits three months to make his decisions he can still avert the famine but now in order to get the food to the areas where it's needed he must begin to call in the big planes. The cost of a meal rises from about twenty cents a helping to about eighty cents a helping - a fourfold increase. He has also put his operations at a margin. There may not be time to get the local transport and distribution systems set up and operating effectively and it's likely some people are going to fall through the safety net.

If our relief official waits until the first signs of starvation are present he has already run out of choices. Now all the food must be flown not only into the country but in all likelihood to the distribution points themselves. The cost of a meal is now well over one dollar per serving. Many people must give up their farming and move to the relief centers that can be supplied by air. Drawing them away from these agricultural activities means that in all likelihood they'll miss the next planting season. Not only is the relief operation behind the curve, by its own nature it is expanding the problem and raising the ante. The problem is that there are no other choices left.

That is not to say that there is not a role for the big planes. They are especially helpful in the opening stages of a refugee relief operation. Often refugees cross the border with little prior warning and relief officials must rely on airlifts to get the needed food and medical supplies into the countries quickly. In other rapid disasters such as floods and earthquakes, planes can also bring much needed assistance in the open phases of the emergency relief operations. But by and large if you see a picture of a C-130 hauling supplies into some remote African desert you can be sure that the international relief community has screwed it up once again. Don't blame the pilots - they're the last bulwark against total disaster.

The use of small planes in relief operations is entirely a different matter. Given the myriad roles that they can play it's amazing that every relief organization doesn't have a whole fleet of Cessnas, Hewlett?? couriers and twin Otters in their bag of tricks. Most relief organizations are quite Neandrathral in their thinking of the matter. Agencies that would no more than blink in investing $30,000 in importing a fancy landcruiser land Rover or Pigero, cringe at the thought of spending the same amount on an airplane, a Cessna 180 or 206 that could move the same number of people, approximately the same amount of load in the tenth of the time in 100% more comfort and in some cases at about the same operating costs.

I've used small planes in my own operations since 1972. I flew a Cessna 170 to the earthquake relief operations in Managua. The plane was used in a variety of roles. We mapped the damage in the slums from the air. We picked sites for temporary camps for displaced persons. We monitored the construction of those camps using aerial photographs taken from the plane. We flew to neighboring countries in search of medical and other relief supplies. We ferried several VIPs and newsmen to neighboring countries so they could file reports on what the relief needs were in the country. No my main job is not as a pilot, my job was to build a camp for the people displaced during the rubble clearing operations and to help plan new housing for those who were evicted by Samosa using the pretext of the earthquake as an excuse to grab their land.

The airplane proved invaluable and I vowed I would never again be without one especially if I was going to be working in a remote area. I've flown in every type of relief operation imaginable throughout Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the Sub-continent, the Far East and the South Pacific. I've used Cessnas, Heliocourriers, Wrens, Beavers and even a Dornier, a Palatusporter and even a Piper Cub. I've used a variety of twins including Apaches, Aztecs, Twin Otters and even the old Mix Master, the second blow Cessna 337. Not as frequently I also used helicopters. The Bell 212 is my favorite but the Jet Ranger will also do nicely. But by and large I prefer the singles. With a twin there are two times as many things to go wrong and a helicopter just has too many parts and besides, they cover everyone with dust when you land.

Of all the relief operations I've flown in, several stand out in my memory because of the excitement of flying with the beauty of the countryside that I flew over. My favorite operation was Sudan.



home .  who killed fred cuny .  map of cuny's world .  from his laptop .  on the life .  his radio interviews .  special reports .  friends & colleagues .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS