A Pilot Without Borders

The world's oldest flying missionary pilot tells all

March 1, 2006

It was 1961. With 84 gallons of fuel and six hours' flying time in the tanks of the mission's Cessna 185, Guy Gervais took off from Wewak, Papua New Guinea, on a sunny day to cross over the 13,000-foot Owen Stanley mountains and head toward the bush strip that he and 100 natives had recently cut and burned from the jungle at Kiunga. Dropping to 900 feet agl to better follow the Fly River to his destination, he felt the exhilaration of flying mixed with the satisfaction of bringing his missionary post out of isolation. He had but 90 hours of flight time in his logbook.

A humanitarian pilot sees a lot of the world, both from his perch aloft and in the eyes of the people who wait upon each precious flight — flights that bring supplies and transportation to reaches of the planet not easily accessible by other means. Through organizations such as Wings of Hope and Terre Sans Frontières (World Without Borders and its partner, Avions Sans Frontières — "Aircraft Without Borders"), Gervais continues the work he began 45 years and more than 25,000 hours ago, using a Cessna single to deliver medicine, food, and passengers to isolated parts of the Third World.

Since his journey as a missionary pilot came into focus that day above the Fly River, Gervais has flown all over the world. His latest assignment is a continuation of one he began in 1987, in the country that over the years has been known as Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DROC, or Congo) — depending on the government in charge at the particular time — where political unrest, outbreaks of rebellion, and military control by various factions have kept the general population running ragged just to survive.

Wings of Hope

Rather than simply one group working in isolation, humanitarian organizations around the world often share resources, in a coordinated chain of effort. So it is with Terre Sans Frontières and an important collaborator, Wings of Hope. While Terre Sans Frontières (TSF) provides operational support to outreach projects around the world, through Avions Sans Frontières (ASF) Wings of Hope provides ASF with donated aircraft for humanitarian use — giving ASF's volunteers their physical wings.

In 1962, a group of Catholic laymen and volunteers created Wings of Hope to answer a need for light aircraft for missionary and relief work in remote parts of the world (see " Aviation's Ambassadors," January 1992 Pilot, and " Wings of Hope: On Volunteer Wings," February 1998 Pilot). Over the 40-plus years it has operated, this nondenominational humanitarian effort has provided more than 100 aircraft to groups like TSF and ASF to serve as lifelines of humanity. Pilots fly medicine, doctors, food, and patients, as well as other valuable cargo, such as schoolbooks. In 2004, the group completed five airplane projects, readying a Cessna 182 and 206 and a Piper Cherokee Six, a Comanche, and an Apache for missions worldwide.

In 2003, Wings of Hope began a program in the United States to dovetail with its international efforts. The St. Louis Medical Air Transport (MAT) moves patients free of charge throughout the Midwest, from rural to urban areas and to health care providers who have donated their services. In its first year, MAT flew more than 900 hours carrying 315 people — mostly children suffering from birth defects and long-term illnesses.

Into the Congo

ASF operations took root in Congo in 1985 with the work of two pilots — a married couple — Pierre Lajeunesse and Phoebe Kingscote, who flew a Cessna 206 provided by Wings of Hope. The couple had previous bush-flying experience in Peru — Kingscote, as a woman flying in Peru, particularly broke new ground and attracted attention, according to Gervais. He first joined the operation in the DROC in 1987 to give the couple a much-needed break. Since then he has returned many times, most recently in 2000 and 2001, and again from August 2004 through January 6, 2006.

The Wings of Hope 206 that Gervais flew during his most recent missions in Congo averages more than 55 hours a month. The airplane connects outlying townships and settlements normally only reachable over terrible, often circuitous roads. Gervais flies VFR throughout northeastern Congo, in an area filled with jungle (the Congo River runs through the country) and hilly terrain. Human habitation is scattered over many air miles.

One such outpost is the small town of Dungu: "like a diamond inserted in a case of green velvet," says Gervais. The description fits well because the northern region of Congo is rich in diamonds, gold, and the "coltan" (columbite-tantalite) that is used in making components for electronics such as cell phones. People dig along springs and rivers in search of these resources, and Gervais likens the scene in some respects to the Klondike gold-rush years in Alaska.

In these areas, ASF gives rides, as space is available, to businessmen and politicians, as well as providing medical transport. According to Gervais, the airplane is the only safe means of transportation in Congo because of the poor infrastructure and hostile environment. ASF stopped its humanitarian flights from August to November 2001 because of warring factions prevalent in the area.

People live in tribes; each tribe is governed by a chief or king who protects the titles and property of the tribe, as well as its customs. The soldiers get involved because the friends of the past governments of Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent and Joseph Kabila want their share of the territories, and use poorly paid soldiers who kill and loot and compete for their share of the mineral bounty, according to Gervais. "We were lucky that the name Avions Sans Frontières is highly respected and the need of a small plane is urgent," he says of the fact he has not been harmed in any of the fighting.

Hunger should not be an issue here, but it can be because of the unsettled conditions. In the Congo there is plenty of sun and rain for crops — "the people eat to their satisfaction," Gervais relates from Ndombe Sesele during a stint in Dungu in 2001. Sesele has directed the ASF efforts for 20 years in the DROC. "The land is very fertile with two crops a year — rice, corn, manioc, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, and so on. From the rivers they can catch fish up to 35 pounds. But there is a virus in the brain of the leaders and militaries...it is more harmful than malaria."

Instead of continuing their education, boys leave secondary school at 16 to become soldiers or to mine diamonds, gold, and coltan. Money isn't spent where it is needed most — in the hospitals, where doctors and nurses go unpaid and struggle to combat illnesses such as malaria, dysentery, various infections, and AIDS.

"The hospital in Dungu that was looted is still waiting for new surgical instruments," reported Gervais after a six-month assignment in 2001. "The poor nurses try to sterilize old rusty scissors, needles, and knives. Many babies died of tetanus because the nurses used rusty scissors to cut the umbilical cord."

Knowing the territory

In addition to medical supplies and transportation, Gervais also has delivered educational materials, including a trip in 2001 to bring state exams to Doko for the schools located there. But circumstances complicated the trip: 300 soldiers were present in the area, guarding the diamond and gold mines. Seven soldiers, five men and two women charged the 206 when it landed, brandishing machine guns and knocking on the windows with their barrels.

Although Gervais showed them his letter from the education inspector, he was not allowed to unload the boxes because the soldiers feared they contained ammunition for another faction. He asked a passing motorbike driver to fetch the local colonel; one hour later the commandant arrived smiling and the boxes were unloaded. "I forgot to advise my captain and soldiers," said the commandant. Gervais returned to Aru contemplating how the ray of hope (education being an important part of it) continues, however tenuously. This is the "Congolese miracle," as he describes the process of bringing the region out of its dysfunctional state.

Avions Sans Frontières has operated in the region at times in a state of war, but not of right or law, says Gervais, particularly of his time in Congo in 2000 and 2001. "So one must be weary to special decisions made in Bunia, which is the capital of one-third of the DROC," he relates from that time. In 2000, the new office for the minister of transports was located there in an old restaurant. In July of that year, says Gervais, "since there was nobody responsible at Civil Aviation to let ASF Dungu operate one aircraft, I was named an aircraft inspector [on the basis of] my FAA [airframe and powerplant certificate] and my Zairian license issued in Kinshasa in 1987. That way I could sign the annual inspection for airworthiness and the 100-hour inspections for the insurance companies."

Then, Bunia was under Ugandese and Congolese army "protection," and the ASF airplane could not pass the night in Bunia for fear of being damaged by an army vehicle, according to Gervais. "I made the flight to Bunia, but always returned to Dungu or Aru for the night.

"Some of our bush strips used before 1997 [when Tutsi rebels had captured much of eastern Congo, Mobutu was overthrown, and Laurent Kabila, Joseph's father, was installed as president] are now covered with anti-personnel mines." For example, on the strip at Auzi, cows graze the grass but many have suffered amputations or worse as they came across the mines. "I cannot land on this airstrip even in case of an emergency," says Gervais.

Gervais recounts a trip in which he and Sesele were returning from Bunia after renewing the ASF operating permit, and the pair encountered a thunderstorm that cut them off from Aru, their destination. Unable to turn around to Bunia — no avgas there that ASF could use — Gervais entered instrument meteorological conditions using a handheld GPS for position guidance. (There are no ground-based navaids operational in this part of Africa.) The "options" — alternate landing strips — that they faced illustrate well the political and social state of the DROC at that time: "Doko was jealously kept by the soldiers situated near the diamond and gold mines — I could not take the risk of being shot by the soldiers, if they weren't advised beforehand; Aba is an airstrip protected by the Sudanese soldiers; Arua is a good airport, but situated in Uganda, and without a flight plan I risk having the plane intercepted and paying a good fine." And, of course, there was the mine-laden strip at Auzi. Gervais determined that skirting ahead of the storm at close quarters was the best bet, with their proximity to Aru and a report of clear weather there. Upon landing, Gervais writes that Sesele whispered to him, "What a life, what a trade to be a bush pilot. I prefer my work at the office."

VFR without a net

The dry season lasts from December to March, and during this time the government allows property owners to burn the fields and savannahs for weed control. The result? Fires all over the place, and in-flight visibility reduced to about 700 feet, with vertical visibility a little more than 1,500 feet. "In my 17 years in Congo, I missed my destination a good dozen times before the use of GPS gave me an exact position," says Gervais. Winds blow up to 30 knots near the firestorms, and the turbulence is quite tiring. "The winds come from the northeast bringing a gray dust that fills the atmosphere up to 8,000 meters," says Gervais. "This is the result of sandstorms from the Sahara Desert that reach central Africa. According to scientists, this dust is the fertilizer spread by the wind that helps to keep the savannah and jungles of Congo green. After landing, we notice the gray dust on the blue paint of our aircraft. I need to clean the air filter and gyros every three days."

While the weather has its hazards, life on the ground nearly always proves more so. "A boy named Armadi found a grenade in the bush near Dungu," says Gervais of an event he recalls from 2001. To the boy, it looked like a shining green toy. The next day, he brought the toy to school. While the teacher was talking, he showed the grenade to his friends, and it exploded. "The center of the explosive passed 6 inches from the teacher's head...about six students were injured and Armadi was taken to the hospital, his face, fingers, and belly badly burned. I was flying back from Doruma at the time, and Masta advised me to get ready for an emergency flight to Isiro. Pieces of steel were encrusted in Armadi's stomach." After flying the boy and his parents to Isiro, where a doctor could get needed X-rays of the damage, Gervais was told that the doctor operated on Armadi for six hours. Though he lost one eye and all 10 fingers, he survived the blast and Gervais returned him to Dungu a month later. "The ASF and Wings of Hope aircraft saved the life of the little boy — he would not have survived a 15-hour drive by jeep over bad road," says Gervais.

Gervais returned to Congo in August 2004 to fly in the same region as before, the violence somewhat diminished. But similar logistical problems remain that make the airplane a vital link. From Bunia to Dungu is 195 miles. From Aru to Amadi is 350 miles. From Dungu to Aru is 200 miles. If there are roads, they are still in very poor condition, but in many areas, there are no roads — only trails for walking.

When he left the Congo in December 2004 to return to his home in Montreal, Quebec, for a holiday break, Gervais was coming off a busy three months in which he had delivered vaccines in coolers and fresh syringes in the 206 from the central hospital in Dungu to outlying areas. He returned to Congo in late January 2005 to finish the last leg of his mission.

"Feel happy and lucky," says Sesele of Gervais, "to be healthy enough to fly in the beautiful blue sky of the Congo. Perhaps being in Canada nobody would like to see you, and you would have to sit on a rocking chair looking through your window, the snowflakes falling." He is probably right, says Gervais. He celebrated his seventy-fourth birthday on January 6, and has now retired from bush flying.

These words from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry probably best describe Gervais' continuing mission: "How could there be any question of acquiring or possessing, when the one thing needful for a man is to become — to be at last." And through Gervais, Wings of Hope and Terre Sans Frontières have helped so many in the process.


E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.


Links to additional information about Wings of Hope, Terre Sans Frontières, and other humanitarian relief efforts may be found on AOPA Online. Guy Gervais has authored a book relating his experience, Come Fly With Me: The Adventures of a Humanitarian Bush Pilot. Proceeds from its sale support humanitarian efforts, and copies may be obtained by contacting Wings of Hope at 636/537-1302 or Terre Sans Frontières at 450/659-7717.