Flying in Africa: an Uplifting Experience

It all started in 1998 when 6 volunteers in Paris, France, formed Air Solidarite Intemationale. Its purpose was to send humanitarian aid to several communities in Africa. These projects were overseen through the years by 30 volunteers in the communities themselves. Each year since then, a cortege of small planes has flown south to see that the money is being used wisely. This year ASI supported 14 programs. This represents a cost of $175,000 which was supplied by a mandatory contribution from each crew taking part.

My adventure started, when I decided to join this year's flight in October 2001. As the only Canadian in the group, it meant I had to somehow join the others in France. My friend Jacqueline, an Air Traffic Controller in Bordeaux, was able to rent a plane there. We decided to fly as a team. Our rendez-vous with Air Solidarité was scheduled to occur in Peripignon, France.

The world had other plans. After September 11th, Washington was too distracted to return my passport and Maritania Visa. When they did arrive days late, my commercial flight to Paris by Air Canada was delayed 10 hours by an electrical failure. Arrival in Bordeaux was finally completed without baggage; part of which, was pharmaceuticals donated by two drug companies in Toronto. A day later, still without baggage, I found the Bordeaux airport closed by police exploding an unattended bag. I couldn't help wondering "was it mine?".

Meanwhile weather played its part. Air Solidarité was stranded in Peripignon in fog and rain. Jacqueline and I set out to meet them but were only able to go halfway to Toulouse. Next day, the same system had us grounded too. Air Solidarité managed to escape VFR on top through a hole in the clouds. Now we had to play catch-up. Dodging through mountain canyons in Spain, we reached Tangier on the Mediterranean costs. Now we were 2 days late.

En route, Air Traffic Control had been speaking to us in either Spanish or French. Over Gibraltar, the International Language of Aviation, English, is strictly adhered to. The runway there was tempting as it resembles that on an aircraft carrier. Then, wearing our life jackets, a short hop over the Mediterranean brought us to Casablanca and Agadir in Morocco.

Now the temperature was starting to escalate as we flew over dry rivers and grey-red sand. Visibility is a problem in this heat (48°C on the ground). Turbulence is constant but erratic making hand-held flying a challenge. Constant monitoring of the engine temperature was a necessity too. Eight hours of flying later, still in Morocco, we caught up to Air Solidarité at Layonne. Of the 40 pilots, there are 5 who are captains on 747's in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg. To them, flying a small plane on a humanitarian mission, is quite different from flying a commercial one by computer. At Layonne, a large airport, the outside world is evident. Parked on the runway are 3 United Nations turboprop planes, a French Mirage and an Antonou reconnaissance aircraft. Beneath them, seeking refuge from the heat, are all the neighborhood stray dogs. On take-off, some military activity in the area, meant our course had to be changed several times.

Nights from then on, were spent as a group, under a simple straw canopy on the sand. The stars are unbelievably bright. Breakfast, served by the African host consists of bread and a little cheese. But everywhere we land there is beer and coke as Castel Beer is one of our sponsors. During, the night, the only water source had dried up, so there was no shower or washing facilities. Further on, in Mali, where mosquitoes were prevalent, we rigged up nets over each sleeping bag. Proximity of others, meant that anyone who snored was an outcast.

The sand, as we fly over the Sahara, has many faces; variations in color, beautiful repetitive swirling patterns or outcroppings of minerals. One plane, with engine problems, had to land there, fortunately safely. True to the name, Solidarité another plane from the group landed at a small airport nearby, commandered a truck and rescued the pilots. The aircraft, on inspection, had suffered no serious damage. So with intense shovelling, a runway was cleared and the plane was again with us. Another plane was not so lucky. Flooding of the engine on take-off, meant that as the starter was engaged, the craft caught fire. A few minutes later, there was nothing left on the wooden Robin but the engine which fell with a thud on the runway. The crew had managed to leap to safely.

Fuel at these small airports, as in the Arctic, arrives in barrels which have to be pumped by hand. Refueling is usually done on landing. One night, the fuel cap on our high wing aircraft was dislodged and the wind emptied the left tank. Air Solidarité came through again. Friends from 2 other aircraft helped us siphon sufficient fuel from theirs for the days flight. A mouthful of gas in 48°C heat is not the best.

In Mali, we saw water at last. On the Niger River, sampan boats floated by on their way to market, always overloaded. Our inspection tour that day was by boat to visit two small villages. Here, as always, the natives greeted us warmly, were poor but colorfully dressed, the children grasping our hands to walk with us -never thinking of saying "What-did-you-bring-me?". Delighted, regardless of the heat, we saw schools that had been built with Air Solidarité funds. At other places, we had seen hospitals, solar collectors, teaching of primary grades in French, surgical equipment and aids for the handicapped.

Our final destination, Bogande in Burkina Paso, proved to be an unexpected test. We had already found navigation in Africa more than a little casual; VORs and ADPs wee either not working or short in range most of the time. Accurate direction could only be maintained using a GPS and suddenly ours was not receiving enough satellites. An additional hand-held instrument saved the day. We were no longer navigating by guess. Our arrival was an event! People, lined the runway, some of whom had walked 15 hours in the heat with babies on their backs. We shared their joy, when parked by welcoming them to climb on, around and through the aircraft. Celebrations continued that evening; speeches from the Mayor and dignitaries in colorful costumes. Then came the entertainment of synchronized drum beating and unique folk dancing.

At Bogandé there is a memorial celebrating the support by Air Solidarité since 1988. We held a memorial there for our leader who was lost in an airplane collision last year. Finally, we made a visit to the hospital, where we met the chief pharmacist, and delivered our medicine -mission accomplished.

Our return to Paris, was a commercial flight scheduled from a much larger airport at Ouagadougou. There we met the replacement crews who were to fly the return journey, visiting other projects en route.

We will never forget, the smiles, celebrations, joie de vivre and warm welcomes at every stop. Nor will we forget the feeling of flying in a turbulent atmosphere. It was much like riding a camel.

Web Master's Note:

Two years ago the man who organized the trip had a mid air collision with another plane over the water and probably 4 people were killed. Although this was a devestating event it did not stop Air Solidarity's mission. This is a fantastic group and this page is here because Reto Frosch from Ascona, Switzerland flies the trip in an SF260. I am told that when the plane left Lacona, Switzerland it was so loaded that the tail skid was dragging the runway during takeoff.

Here is Reto's trip plan from 1998.

Reto Froesch  from Locarno to Locarno

9-24-98	Locarno to Perpiqnac  2:32
9-26-98 Perpiqnac to Almeria  4:10
9-26-98 Almeria to Tangeri   1:30
9-27-98 Tangeri to Mawakea  2:10
9-27-98 Mawakea to El Ayoun  2:43
9-28-98 El Ayoun to Atar  3:03
9-28-98  Atar to Chinguetti  :18
9-29-98 Chinguetti to Bamako  3:56
9-30-98 Bamako Ouaga  2:46
10-1-98 Ouaga to Bogandi :37

Here is a 2005 Air Solidarite article

Glendon’s Amnesty International Club Promotes Human Rights through ‘Air Solidarité’

Air Solidarité’s humanitarian efforts in Africa were featured in a YFile article in January 2005. Glendon Science of Flight professor (emeritus) Daphne Schiff and flight partner Adele Fogle participate in a humanitarian mission each year under the name Air-O-Sols. Piloting a single-engine plane, the 80-year-old Schiff and the 71-year-old Fogle deliver much-needed medical and school supplies to areas of Africa ravaged by war, famine and other disasters.

But in order to participate in Air Solidarité’s annual mission, the Air-O-Sols need to collect $40,000 to cover cash contributions to the program, as well as expenses, such as airplane fuel and accommodations during the tour. And the medications and school supplies they distribute represent additional donations from individuals and corporations.

The January YFile article created a great deal of interest on York’s campuses. At the same time, several local papers, including the North York Mirror and the Canadian Jewish News ran stories about Schiff’s and Fogle’s activities. Schiff was also interviewed on CBC radio and television.

One of the most meaningful responses to their call for contributions was a special event held on March 16th by the Glendon Amnesty International Club, to raise awareness about human rights and the importance of humanitarian missions. Matthew Henzel, recent recipient of the Glendon Student Service Award for his contribution to the Glendon community, established the Club this year and has been working as its coordinator. Henzel was instrumental in organizing the fundraiser and in making it an outstanding success. In collaboration with Professor Schiff, the Club presented excellent speakers on the topic of human rights, including Schiff herself. The evening also included student musical performances, as well as a fundraising opportunity to donate to the work of Air Solidarité and, in particular, the Air-O-Sols.

“We explained to all those present, that the money was going to a very important cause and that Air Solidarité is trying to make a real difference”, said Henzel. “We told the students that every donation counted, no matter how small. Students are very hard-pressed for funds these days and we wanted to make sure that the money was going to be used where it was needed most.”

The Club raised $205 – a very significant amount, considering that it was donated on a small campus by individuals who do not have much themselves. Club organizers asked to be informed, if possible, about the ways in which this modest contribution would make a difference. The cheque was formally presented to Schiff, who was very moved by the students’ generosity and their concern for others. She declared it one of the most significant donations she had ever received towards her trips to Africa.

“It is an understatement to say that the time is now for the international community to live up to its belief that all humans are equal”, declared Henzel. “It is not enough for the international community to say so; it must show [its intentions] with real contributions. It gives our Club great joy to support an organization which is already doing that.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Marika Kemeny, communications officer at Glendon College.

Posted 05/18/2005
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