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
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
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.
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