Humanitarian Pilots - A Proven Force for Good

What is the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative? Find out how an idea to support the civilian sea rescue fleet from the air has developed to the work they do today.

AvBuyer  |  15th September 2022
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The AvBuyer editorial team includes Matt Harris and Rebecca Applegarth who contribute to a number of...

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Humanitarian Pilots - A Proven Force for Good

When Fabio Zgraggen, paragliding instructor, and Ruben Neugebauer, political activist and microlight pilot, had the idea in 2016 to support the civilian sea rescue fleet from the air an idea was born that sounded crazy: HPI, the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative. 

The following years, however, showed that without private aerial monitoring many people would have lost their lives in the Mediterranean and even more human rights violations on high seas would have remained undocumented. 

In the beginning, the idea was to provide aerial support with an Ikarus C42 microlight aircraft to the civilian rescue ship fleet. During the next years, HPI flew missions together with the German NGO Sea Watch, up to eight hours per flight over the central Mediterranean Sea, one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. 

Equipped with a handheld maritime radio, HPI pilots were able to call the surrounding boats, be it civilian rescue boats, military vessels or merchant ships, as soon as they saw one of the rubber or wooden boats — which were invariably unfit for the high seas and overcrowded with people. Often they were crudely heading north, some with failed engines, drifting and ruptured due to the overloading. 

Until 2018 the cooperation with the authorities and ships worked very well, partly because the Italian rescue coordination centre had taken over the SAR service for the Libyan search and rescue zone, which coincides with the Tripoli FIR and extends to about 75 NM north of Libya. Later, HPI had to deal with increasingly strong groundings and waves of criminalisation. 

War Brings New Challenges 

When the Ukraine war started in spring 2022, HPI again wanted to offer its capabilities to assist. Together with Ukraine Air Rescue, pilots and aircraft owners cooperating with HPI, the organisation was able to fly several tonnes of relief supplies to Poland, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania. On the way back the pilots were always able to take with them people for whom the overland route would have been far too arduous or impossible due to injuries or a lack of medical treatment facilities. 

For example, they were able to take an 11-year-old girl suffering from aggressive cancer from Suceava (LRSV) to Rome (LIRU). She would have had about two weeks to live in Ukraine and now had a good chance of making a full recovery thanks to the treatment in the special paediatric oncology unit in Rome, according to the accompanying doctor. 

Another flight was also carried out by HPI pilot Manos Radisoglou to Moldova. As it is the only country that is not a member of the EU, almost none of the European aid reaches the country. To change this, HPI tried to help there as well. It used a Cessna Caravan, which is normally flown in parachute operations and which the organisation was able to charter thanks to its donors. 

On Tuesday evening, the flight left Saarlouis (EDRJ) for Altenrhein (LSZR) so that the plane would be ready on Wednesday morning. From eight o'clock in the morning, the cargo, consisting of urgently needed relief supplies, was loaded. After a 4:30 hour flight and flying around and over several military restricted areas, the aircraft arrived in Chisinau (LUKK), where a truck was already waiting to unload the cargo. 

Unfortunately, what happened next cannot be surpassed in terms of bizarreness. Although approvals from aviation authorities and customs were granted in advance, the transported goods would not be released even after five hours of negotiations because they weighed 740 kg instead of 735 kg. Only after another eight hours of wrangling the next day was HPI allowed to collect the relief goods from customs. 

When they wanted to pay the airport fees the next day, another surprise was waiting: 2,000 Euros extra fees because of a ‘non-scheduled flight’. Again, long discussions, but no, humanitarian flights are not exempt. Even the airport director could not waive the fees but gave the HPI pilot advice for the next flights on how to solve this. Fortunately, some weeks later HPI got reimbursed. 

Traumatised Passengers

Having cleared all the red flags, nothing stood in the way of the flight to LSZR with a stopover for fuel and passenger comfort in Györ (LHPR). Or so they thought. Meanwhile the passengers had arrived with some delay and as the aircraft was already past its planned EOBT of 0600Z, the phone rang and the handling in Györ told the pilot that the aircraft was not allowed to land there because the status of the refugees was unclear and Hungary, as the first Schengen country, didn’t allow entry. 

They were not interested in the fact that the passengers were only in transit and had confirmation from the Swiss authorities to accept the people. The HPI team wondered what would have happened if they’d already been airborne... 

Well, since HPI is now used to this kind of thing, the team quickly made a phone call and checked options. After a super, unbureaucratic call to Graz (LOWG), they approved the stopover there and everyone could start boarding. 

After three cloudless hours the aircraft arrived in Graz, where one of the passengers then urgently wanted a smoke — which of course is not possible on the apron of an airport. Being so stressed and traumatised, the pilot was barely able to explain to her (even with the help of an interpreter) that she could not enter the building because she would then be ‘immigrating’ to Austria without a visa and would not be able to get back on board.

When that was also cleared up and the plane was refuelled, the aircraft flew over the Alps in relatively poor weather conditions, but once it reached the northern side of the main ridge and the skies cleared up, everything went well and the people were welcomed by the Swiss authorities. 

For HPI, apart from our monitoring flights, these are the first flights close to an actual war zone. When you see ground-to-air-missiles set up at airports and people bringing all their belongings with them in two large plastic bags, you realise what the war means for the people, even if you can certainly only remotely imagine the entire picture. 

Providing effective and efficient aid is HPI’s way to tackle this injustice. In solidarity with all Ukrainians who have lost their homes, HPI is always ready to use its know-how to tackle other crises where civil aviation can help.


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