SA pilots bring air aid to Africa



Plane at Cape Town International Airport.
(Image: Jeffrey Barbee, For more
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Often the forgotten heroes of humanitarian assistance, pilots play a critical role in making sure that aid gets to where it is needed most around the world. In Africa, South Africa’s highly skilled and experienced pilots do most of this flying to transport aid under UN-sponsored programmes.

In 2007, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) transported about 320 000 passengers and more than 11 000 metric tons of cargo in support of humanitarian operations, according to its aviation unit’s annual report.

With no aircraft of its own, WFP relies almost exclusively on commercial operators, about 50% of whom are South African, according to the agency’s Aviation Unit Chief Pierre Carrasse.

With more than 9 000 registered aircraft, South Africa boasts the largest fleet on the continent and makes the country an obvious source for pilots, he said.

High standards, coupled with fluency in English, keep South Africa’s about 14 000 registered pilots in high demand among humanitarian organisations, according to Mario Sibrian, WFP’s regional air safety officer for southern Africa. As a result, the emergency food agency has located one of its three logistical operations centres in the country.

A second centre was opened in Nairobi, Kenya, to respond to the ongoing humanitarian crises in Chad and Sudan. Although the country has a relatively small pool of about 3,000 registered pilots, Kenya is also a significant player in the aid industry.

Currently, about 80% of Cem Air’s fleet is contracted to international development or aid organisations. That doesn’t surprise Tino Booysen, Cem Air’s chief pilot. While the air cargo industry is often dominated by pilots from eastern Europe, humanitarian agencies need smaller aircraft with crews experienced in flying in Africa.

“In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he said, “you need an exceptional kind of pilot because you are not just a pilot, you’re everything – you’re doing your own flight plans, paying the landing fees, trying to get accurate weather forecasts, and making sure the passengers are there.” The DRC currently has the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world.

These additional responsibilities translate into substantially higher levels of pay for charter pilots than those with comparable years of experience in the commercial sector.

“If you fly anywhere in Europe you’re on radio control – someone knows where you are, but Africa is very hostile to aircraft and that’s why the safety record is what it is,” said Booysen. The continent’s equatorial weather systems are among the most treacherous in the world, he added, making experience vital.

The ultimate price

Despite this experience, the pilots sometimes pay the ultimate price.

A plane crash in the hills of eastern DRC this month claimed the lives of 15 international and local aid workers as well as its two pilots, one of them 23-year-old South African Rudi Knoetze, who had made captain just three months before.

Air Serv International, a non-profit organisation providing air transport to international organisations, had chartered the aircraft, a Beechcraft 1900, from Knoetze’s employers, Cem Air, a South Africa-based company.

On Wednesday, Air Serv International confirmed that the cause of the 1 September crash remained unknown, but preliminary reports indicated that bad weather may have been a factor.

Rudi was laid to rest in full captain’s uniform on 12 September.

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