A Gift of Wings

ALPA members fly with a nonprofit organization on its humanitarian relief missions.

By Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, April 2005, p.14

Air Serv International's headquarters in Warrenton, Va., don't really suggest much about just what this unique organization does. Tucked away in a nondescript office complex just a stone's throw from U.S. Highway 29, Air Serv has chosen quite an out-of-the-way place from which to oversee the logistical complexities of its daily flight operations. Indeed, it seems an unlikely place to base a nonprofit humanitarian group with aircraft and crew scattered throughout various countries around the world. But considering the dangerous and often inhospitable places that Air Serv pilots fly, the rural northern Virginia location is probably a welcoming oasis to a weary pilot returning from an extended tour of duty on some far-off continent. 

Air Serv International is a nonprofit organization that provides critical aviation, communications, and related services to organizations involved in humanitarian relief and development work, such as the Red Cross, the United Nations, Save the Children, World Vision, and Doctors Without Borders. Founded in 1984 in the midst of widespread famine in Ethiopia and Mozambique, Air Serv has grown significantly as the need for humanitarian response to war, disaster, hunger, and health crises has increased over the years. 

The nonprofit carrier operates a diverse fleet of aircraft that includes Caravans, Stationairs, Twin Otters, Beech 1900s, King Airs, Embraer 120s, and Bell and Puma helicopters. "We match the aircraft with the mission," says Kurt Neuenschwander, international chief pilot for Air Serv. "We operate in some pretty difficult environments, and into some less-than-ideal airstrips, so it's crucial that we have aircraft that are appropriate to the operation." 

The organization, which gets much of its funding from various government, corporate, and private donations, has recent and ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Mozambique, Uganda, Chad, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. Often, Air Serv provides the only viable transportation to aid workers carrying time-sensitive cargo like food and medical supplies to locations that may be several days away driving distance, but only an hour or so away by air. 

Most recently, Air Serv has been busy providing air transportation to relief agencies in Sri Lanka and Sumatra, responding to the tsunami disaster that struck the region on Dec. 26, 2004. The organization's services were vital to aid workers trying to reach victims of the unprecedented large-scale disaster. The overall death toll in the region is estimated to be 300,000 or more with many more missing or displaced. 

The logistical problems of running air relief operations of this scale are numerous. In addition to everyday maintenance issues, Air Serv pilots have to deal with local aviation authorities, maintain fuel supplies, cope with lack of radio navigational aids, and find suitable runways. 

"We have an entire section in our operations manual just about off-runway landings," says Neuenschwander. "Access to fuel is not always dependable, and we have virtually no weather reports." 

Other inherent difficulties go along with the kind of flying that Air Serv pilots do. Specifically, many of the regions where they operate are hot spots of political unrest. Air Serv is careful to remain apolitical, negotiating a delicate existence between opposing sides in war-torn areas. 

"We won't operate in an area unless we have the permission of both sides," says Neuenschwander. "Occasionally, rebel groups will try to persuade us to carry their wounded, but we won't carry anyone who is participating in a conflict." 

Unfortunately, even such painstaking neutrality is sometimes not enough to avoid tragedy. In September 1993, rebels killed one of Air Serv's pilots during a night attack on a UNICEF camp in northeast Kenya. Nevertheless, Air Serv pilots continue to fly into dangerous areas to deliver much- needed cargo and critical services. 

Air Serv pilots come from a variety of aviation backgrounds and experience. But they all have one thing in common: the desire to help people in need. Airline pilots are well represented among the ranks of Air Serv flyers. In fact, many take leaves of absence from their airline jobs to spend time flying relief with the organization. 

"We use our flying skills to try to make life a little better for folks who don't have it so good," says First Officer Mark Abbott (FedEx), who currently serves as chairman of the Air Serv Board of Directors. F/O Abbott got involved with Air Serv in 1991, just as he was separating from the Air Force. He'd been flying C-141s in the military and was ready to try his hand at a different kind of flying. 

"I'd heard about Air Serv and thought it might be something I'd like to do. I filled out an application, took a weeklong orientation course, and passed a flight evaluation in a small airplane." Before he knew it, he was on his way to Khartoum, Sudan, where he was assigned to fly humanitarian relief as captain on a Twin Otter. 

F/O Abbott, an ALPA 2002 Air Safety Award recipient who currently flies the MD-11 out of Los Angeles for FedEx, spent a year in Sudan on that first tour. Since then, he's volunteered flying time in a number of remote and war-ravaged locations around the world. His humanitarian flying has taken him to such places as Mozambique, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Angola, and Kenya. In fact, quite often F/O Abbott and his wife use their vacation time to contribute to Air Serv's support of relief operations. Recently, he was in Banda Aceh, helping with tsunami relief efforts there. 

"FedEx has been very cooperative in allowing me to fly with Air Serv," says F/O Abbott. "Generally, airlines have rules against outside flying, but FedEx has been pretty supportive." 

Since 1999, F/O Abbott has served on Air Serv's eight-member Board of Directors, helping to oversee the organization's operations and develop strategic planning to prepare Air Serv for its role in future humanitarian relief and development efforts. The organization has expanded quickly in recent years, with a current operating budget of approximately $16 million, up from about $5 million only 4 years ago. With the tsunami relief operations, Air Serv's operating budget for 2005 will exceed $30 million. 

"All the Board members bring different backgrounds and experience to the organization," says F/O Abbott, who provides flight operations expertise to the Board. "We're basically there to make sure that Air Serv is performing the way we think the organization should perform, and is moving in the right direction." 

While Air Serv does compensate its pilots, the pay isn't much compared to airline standards. But most Air Serv pilots aren't in it for the money. In fact some pilots, such as F/O Abbott, simply volunteer their time. 

"People don't come out here to make money, because there really isn't all that much money to be had," says F/O Abbott. "But these pilots still have bills and mortgages to pay, so we do offer something to help make ends meet." 

The real payoff seems to be a greater sense of personal fulfillment. An initial overseas tour is often the beginning of what some Air Serv pilots describe as an "infectious" enthusiasm to support the Air Serv mission. Steve Marshall, senior recruiting manager and training captain for Air Serv, started flying with the organization back in 1989. Since then, he's had three tours overseas with Air Serv: two in Mozambique and one in Congo. 

"Each time, the experience becomes richer and more meaningful," says Marshall. " I just spent a week in Sri Lanka, and I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world." 

Marshall left Air Serv briefly to take a higher paying flying job, but eventually returned to the organization because he found that flying for Air Serv was much more gratifying. "In the aviation world, we have so few opportunities to do this kind of work," he says. "It's great to be able to use your skills in a way that has a significant and positive effect on people's lives. The experience changes you." 

Air Serv International is continually looking for qualified pilots to meet the demands of their expanding mission. If you're interested in working with Air Serv, want to give a donation, or just want to learn more about the organization, visit www.airserv.org.