Measles, diamonds, Antonovs: Tales of GA in the Congo

April 21, 2011

MAF personnel load vaccines aboard a waiting plane at the Kinshasa airport. MAF is providing flights to combat a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Garth Pederson.

MAF personnel load vaccines aboard a waiting plane at the Kinshasa airport. MAF is providing flights to combat a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Garth Pederson.

When it comes to battling a measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Garth Pederson plays a key role: pilot. He and two other pilots, Rod Hochstetler and David Francis, with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) have been flying staff and medical supplies for Doctors Without Borders since January to combat measles. Now, they average one flight per week to transport staff.

MAF helped to deliver about 1,300 pounds of supplies last month, primarily using its Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, turning a one-way 350-nautical-mile leg that would take a week by automobile into a 2-hour, 20-minute flight. The three pilots, all AOPA members, share the crushed-rock Tshikapa runway in the Kasai province with Russian Antonov AN-26 freighters that have left their share of ruts. The Antonovs support the diamond mining industry in that province.

Doctors Without Borders reported that at the end of March “ more than 1.5 million children have been vaccinated and 21,000 measles cases detected over the past six months,” adding that the epidemic shows “ no signs of slowing.”

Doctors Without Borders uses the pilots’ “expertise and experience to operate safely in the aviation part,” Pederson, who is based in Kinshasa, told AOPA in an email interview. MAF’s service “enables them to use their expertise in the medical intervention helping to reduce suffering and save lives.”

MAF has worked with Doctors Without Borders at different times throughout the years, but the working relationship has taken off in the last five years.

“MAF is honored to assist by flying immunizations and key Doctors Without Borders personnel in this lifesaving vaccination campaign against this killer disease,” said MAF President and CEO John Boyd in a news release. MAF cited reports that the measles virus had spread from rural villages into cities and could eventually affect the entire country.

Doctors Without Borders reported that at the end of March “more than 1.5 million children have been vaccinated and 21,000 measles cases detected over the past six months,” adding that the epidemic shows “no signs of slowing.” Measles can lead to pneumonia, dehydration, ear and eye infections, and malnutrition, according to the organization.

Pederson has worked with Doctors Without Borders before, flying staff and equipment for the organization in 2007 during an Ebola virus outbreak in the same area.

Pederson explained that “we had to fly in a lot of protective gear for them as the virus was very contagious and deadly in its early stages. They offer their services and medicines to the affected population free of charge.”

The operating conditions aren’t easy.

First comes the matter of finding a place to land.

Before transporting supplies and personnel to the affected area, Pederson worked with a Doctors Without Borders flight coordinator to measure the Kamonia airstrip, photograph its location and details, and get the specifics needed to create an “airstrip chart.”

“We encountered some rain about 10 miles before arrival, and I was about to head towards my alternate when we saw a break and were able to find the strip, do a couple of passes to evaluate it, and then land,” Pederson said. “It had a slope, had been eroded from rain, and in some places looked like a sandy river bed.”

“From experience with other similar strips and using the Caravan POH, we planned on an 880-pound reduction in takeoff weight with the Caravan, and that worked out very well when we actually did it.”

It proved no problem for the diesel-engine Cessna 182 fitted with large wheels and tires.

“We did our measurements and then were getting ready to go when we were buzzed by an Antonov 2 who wanted to land,” he said. “Since there wasn’t room for two airplanes we jumped in and were able to get going fairly quickly in order to make room.” The Russian biplane brings diamond miners into short, rough airstrips.

Then there’s picking the right aircraft for the job.

Pederson created an airstrip chart for Kamonia and then calculated the weight and balance and aircraft performance for the Caravan to operate at the strip.

“From experience with other similar strips and using the Caravan POH, we planned on an 880-pound reduction in takeoff weight with the Caravan, and that worked out very well when we actually did it.”

Pederson said they switched from Kamonia to the Tshikapa airstrip because its longer runway allowed MAF pilots to carry a full load on the Caravan, which the Doctors Without Borders staff prefer to the Cessna 206 and diesel Cessna 182. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MAF operates three Caravans, three Cessna 206s, a Cessna 207, and a Cessna 182 SMA diesel Skylane.

Then there’s the weather.

“The weather flying conditions are ‘What you see is what you get,’” Pederson explained. “We can get an idea by using a satellite picture what the general weather is like, but it isn’t uncommon to run into weather, and have to go around thunderstorms. We can call someone on the ground to get an idea of the weather but there isn’t a central weather reporting service.”

“The avgas shortage means that we’ve scaled back our C206/C207 flights here in Kinshasa in order to make it last longer. We have enough to last us until mid-May.”

And then there’s the fuel supply.

While the Caravan and Cessna 182 don’t rely on avgas, the Cessna 206 and 207 do. And MAF is running low on avgas.

“The avgas shortage means that we’ve scaled back our C206/C207 flights here in Kinshasa in order to make it last longer,” Pederson said. “We have enough to last us until mid-May.”

A shipment arrived in the port within the last week, he said, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get the avgas in time. It can take one to three months for the avgas to clear customs, he added.

Despite these hurdles, MAF continues providing regular transportation for Doctors Without Borders.

“They seem to be positive and very appreciative of our flights. They are a pretty dedicated and courageous lot. They don’t seem afraid of hard work or the threat of disease,” Pederson said. “… We work very well together.”

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller | AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.