The Lifeblood of Humanitarian Aid Operations

Have you ever wondered how aid is delivered in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, or how aviation provides critical, specialised support during the initial aftermath? Patrick Ryan answers these benevolent ‘Life Saving’ questions — and more — from the cockpit of the ‘Aerial Work’ aviation sector.

Patrick Ryan  |  24th September 2021
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    Medical supplies being unloaded off of a Helicopter

    Following the hours and days of a natural disaster or during man-made geopolitical conflicts, basic infrastructure (such as streets and bridges) is often destroyed, and transport capacity is significantly impaired or damaged beyond use. Because of this, access to affected areas becomes very difficult or even impossible. In this scenario, aircraft are the most appropriate platforms to reach the victims.

    To make this happen, the Aerial Work humanitarian air service sector brings together all the capabilities of aviation to help support such unfortunate events, i.e., GA, Air Transportation, and the many unique sectors of Aerial Work aviation.

    So, what is Aerial Work Humanitarian Aid?

    First, in the world of humanitarian aid and assistance, the Humanitarian Program Cycle (HPC) is an organised series of actions undertaken to help prepare for, manage, and deliver humanitarian response. It consists of five elements coordinated seamlessly, with one step sensibly building on the previous and leading to the next.

    These elements are Needs Assessment & Analysis; Strategic Response Planning; Resource Mobilization; Implementation and Monitoring; and Operational Review and Evaluation. Like the HPC, the answer to the above question follows the same coordinated series of actions.

    Needs Assessment & Analysis

    What is Humanitarian Aid? Humanitarian aid is information, material, and logistic assistance to help people in need during a crisis. It is primarily short-term help until the long-term help by local authorities and other regional organisations substitutes it.

    In any giving crisis, the individuals in need are the victims, refugees, and homeless of natural disasters, conflicts, and food crises. Humanitarian aid efforts are given for humanitarian reasons and consist of natural disasters and man- made/instigated conflicts. The bottom line, and the primary goals of humanitarian aid, are to save lives, relieve suffering, and maintain human dignity.

    At the centre of it all is the aviation industry, which plays a pivotal role in assessing the situation, distributing food, medical supplies, and shelter materials. In addition, humanitarian air services, as mentioned before, are particularly critical in conditions when collapsing or washed away infrastructure or ongoing geopolitical conflict essentially cuts off ground access to entire regions.

    Strategic Response Planning

    How does Aerial Work aviation Support Humanitarian Operations? For many international crises unfolding today and expected in the future, there is a continued need. In any given year, billions of dollars of supplies will be required, and their donated delivery will be made possible by the aviation sector.

    As a small example of one of many humanitarian air services operating around the globe, in 2020, the ‘EU Humanitarian Aid Flight’ organisation provided:

    • Approximately €14.8 million for EU Humanitarian Aid Flights.
    • More than €20 million in funding to other non-profit humanitarian air services.
    • €8 million for EU Humanitarian Air Bridge operations (COVID Relief).
    • €4.5 million to the United National Global Response Air Service.

    The primary role of aviation in humanitarian emergency response is moving supplies very quickly. They achieve this by transporting resources from pre-positioned hubs, such as Dubai, Panama, or West Africa, where nations, together with partners and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), stockpile essential items.

    By doing so, the program helps the humanitarian aid community decrease its high logistics costs by distributing quickly medical and water sanitation equipment, food, toys, clothing, and emergency response units (e.g., kitchen sets, medical personnel, household kits, and more) to the most vulnerable all around the world.

    However, there are other critical and just as essential missions associated with the Aerial Work humanitarian sector. Besides logistics or essential life-sustaining support, the humanitarian air service sectors also provides these specialised but vital functions required by humanitarian aid operations during a disaster:

    • Mapping & Surveying – Mapping & surveying allows for capturing aerial imagery of relatively small areas and collecting optical imagery where cloud precludes satellite imagery. The imagery collected from aircraft can create accurate two- dimensional maps, elevation models, 3D renderings of buildings, and geographic features, among many other things.
    • Monitoring – Real-time information is critical in delivering aid precisely. Aircraft, integrated with GPS, sensors, and camera systems, create geo- referenced live-stream videos for tactical situations to identify and track displaced populations and temporary settlements.
    • Damage Assessments – Along with mapping and monitoring, aircraft identify and qualitatively record the scope, severity, and location of the effects of a destructive event.
    • Air Search & Rescue (SAR) – Given the extent and severity of a crisis, air assets are used to search for, rescue, or recover individuals or groups out of immediate harm’s way.
    • Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) – Air CASEVAC consist of transporting a seriously injured person from the place of injury to a medical or trauma facility. No medical treatment (or medical equipment onboard an aircraft) is provided other than quickly getting a patient to where they can receive urgent medical attention.
    • Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) – Air MEDEVAC is the organised effort to transport an injured person from one medical facility to another or safer location. Air MEDEVAC aircraft are usually equipped with medical equipment and supplies that can provide en route medical care.
    • Airdrop – Outside of transitional means of aircraft delivering life-saving supplies, humanitarian aid organisations (including the military) have added airdrop (via parachute) operations to their specialised support kit. Humanitarian airdrops are designed to deliver life-saving assistance when there is no other option, i.e., as a last resort. But it is still a risky, complex, and expensive effort. The typical airdrop loads consist of food that can withstand such a dramatic drop - rice, wheat, flour, dried lentils, dried peas, and sugar vs. water and cooking oil.

    Resource Mobilisation

    What are the types of aircraft and capabilities used in humanitarian operations? Again, in most regions of the world requiring humanitarian assistance, ground travel is impeded by demanding security settings, long distances, and poor ground transportation conditions. Additionally, most of the destinations the humanitarian community needs to reach are not served by adequate commercial air operators.

    Like so many of the sectors of Aerial Work aviation, the humanitarian air service sector leverages the full spectrum of aircraft to meet the various critical needs of a humanitarian crisis, i.e., including rotary-wing, fixed-wing, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). What they do specifically to aid others is based on their unique capabilities:


    During the first hours of a crisis, helicopters are critical in making a clear difference and enabling a swift response. Their flexibility and ability to quickly mobilise allow for passengers’ safe movement in demanding environments and support ground rescuers to assess emergencies.

    Some of the most common or preferred humanitarian helicopters include medium-lift and heavy-lift platforms. An example of these types of aircraft are:

    • Mil, Mi-8
    • Airbus, H215
    • Airbus, AS350
    • Bell Helicopter, Bell 412
    • Bell Helicopter, Bell 212


    Fixed-wing aircraft provide the heavy-lift and reach to aid and sustain larger populations over extensive distances following rotary-wing support. The primary types of fixed-wing platforms used in such operations are narrowbody and widebody turboprop and jet aircraft, i.e., cargo or passenger aircraft.

    Outside of military aircraft used in humanitarian operations, the following make & model platforms can be seen regularly around the world, relieving the misery of others in remote, conflict, or disaster areas:

    • Embraer, EMB 135
    • Boeing, 737
    • Bombardier, Dash 8
    • Beech Aircraft Corporation/Raytheon Aircraft Company, Beechcraft 1900
    • Dornier, Dornier 328
    • Lockheed, C-130 ‘Hercules’
    • Cessna, C-208 Caravan
    • Ilyushin, IL-76

    Unmanned Aircraft

    The truth is that the use of UAVs in humanitarian aid is a rapidly emerging field right now. Today, the primary use of UAVs is not delivering large volumes of supplies but providing specialised support, e.g., search & rescue assistance, damage assessments, delivery of micro- loads of materials (e.g., medicines, specialised equipment, etc.), transporting microbiological samples, and crisis monitoring.

    Unlike manned aircraft, very small UAVs provide easy access to hard-to-reach confined locations or spaces that are sometimes impossible with traditional aviation resources. Additionally, operating UAVs’ logistical footprint & tail is much smaller than sustaining manned rotor-wing and fixed-wing aircraft in the field, i.e., a better return on donors’ contributions.

    On the downside, currently, UAVs frequently arrive too late or are too disorganised from an operational, in-the- field perspective to be helpful in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Humanitarian aid organisations are addressing this issue by building local or regional networks and integrating UAVs into their regional emergency response toolkits or programs. 

    Additionally, inadequate regulations can be a substantial hindrance to deploying drones in crises. In many countries, regulations do not exist and, where they do exist, they typically do not include conditions for humanitarian emergencies.

    If you want to know, the types of UAVs humanitarian organizations are currently focused on are small fixed- wing and ‘multirotor’ or ‘VTOL’ (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) in supporting their operations. An example of these types of platforms that have or are used in humanitarian aid efforts are:

    • SenseFly, eBee-X
    • Zipline, Zipline
    • Matternet, M2
    • Selex ES (Leonardo), Falco

    Implementation and Monitoring

    Who provides Aerial Work aviation humanitarian air services? With more geopolitical tensions and natural disasters worldwide, this onerous duty has been put more recently in the hands of multinational organisations and aid agencies to share resources and increase global coverage.

    Although the reason for this is due to the limitations of civil and military government assets accessible for humanitarian aid, these organisations have in the past decade been shifting to using privately owned assets, especially for aviation, to conduct complex air missions in harsh environments while at the same time maintaining stringent civilian airworthiness requirements.

    Some of these types of non-government and multi- national organisations that arrange and execute humanitarian air services, or the aviation companies that are sub-contracted to support such groups, are:

    Multi-National Organisations

    • United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS)
    • United Nations Pacific Humanitarian Air Service
    • European Union Humanitarian Aid Flight

    Non-Government (NGO) Organisations

    • AERObridge
    • Air Serve
    • Airlink
    • Mercy Airlift
    • SARAID

    Corporate Service Providers

    • Global Helicopter Service GmbH, Germany
    • Ultimate Aviation Group, South Africa
    • 748 Air Services Ltd, Kenya

    Operational Review and Evaluation

    The humanitarian aid outlook scenario for 2021 and beyond remains bleak in urban and rural settings worldwide due to a series of factors, including worsening geopolitical insecurity and a continually changing environment.

    With this not-so-positive analysis, the Aerial Work aviation Humanitarian Aid sector is postured to continue to intensify efforts to support people in need.

    Specifically, both manned and unmanned aircraft of all types with their specialised capabilities will continue to be used in transporting critical supplies and medicines, monitor catastrophic conditions, and assess damage at the right time and in the right place. Because of the aircraft’s unique capabilities, the humanitarian aid community can be more effective and efficient in its efforts.

    Even though the aviation sector is just one small part of a sizable global humanitarian aid community, its contribution can be massively felt within hours and days after a catastrophic incident. Besides civil governments and military units providing such service from the sky, the multi-national, NGO, and corporate aviation communities are picking up more of this service today and will do well into the future.

    So, the next time you read about a humanitarian catastrophe or through misfortune find yourself in a crisis, be reassured a fleet of aircraft from small UAVs to widebody jet cargo airplanes, along with their professional crews, are coming to the aid of you (and others) to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity.

    In other words, the Aerial Work humanitarian air service sector is genuinely the ‘Aerial Angels’ of Aviation who will be there for you now and in the future... In other words, “Don’t give up hope...someone will fly far and wide to help you!”

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