It can be a 14-day trek to the nearest hospital for some villagers in the South American nation of Guyana if they are unlucky enough to break a bone, be mauled by a jaguar, or encounter some other urgent medical misfortune.
An airplane reduces that trip across jungle and savannah on rough trails and by canoe to an hour’s travel time thanks to a volunteer aviation organization based in Rockford, Tennessee—but it takes a special kind of volunteer pilot to deliver the patient to the hospital in Lethem in southwestern Guyana.
Interested in signing up?
Then read on to learn how the volunteer pilots of nonprofit Remote Area Medical bring vital health services to remote places in Guyana flying a single-engine Cessna U206 into a network of unimproved airstrips, and how to become a member of the team. The group can use the help right now, said Remote Area Medical Director of Operations Dick Stoops.
In a phone interview, Stoops said he was working to add to his current roster of pilots. Applicants may hold a private pilot certificate or higher and should be capable of flying the organization’s high-performance single from its base in Lethem, on the border with Brazil, on a wide variety of medical missions.
Stoops (available at 502/682-6676) hopes to arrange for interested pilots to travel to Lethem this spring and try the volunteer pilot role on for size for a week. Then if it’s a go, the new pilot would return for a service stint of a month or more at a later date.
Until about three years ago, much of the piloting workload was shouldered by a locally based pilot who gave up the post, leaving Remote Area Medical to reach out for replacements.
From Appalachia to Asia, Remote Area Medical serves people with little or no access to basic medical care, bringing free clinics, dental care, and other services where it is needed.
Eighty percent of operations are in the United States, but wherever disaster relief or other services are provided, “In less than 24 hours we turn fairgrounds, schools, arenas, and jungles into mobile medical centers,” the group says.
Flying Remote Area Medical’s combination utility aircraft and air ambulance in Guyana means landing at and taking off loaded from mostly unpaved strips about 1,500 feet long and 50 feet wide, up to two hours from the home base, said Bob Delese, a retired working pilot who has done numerous stints in the country. Conditions are hot and humid, so “there’s no room for error.”
Flight in Guyana faces other challenges: There are no aeronautical charts for the routes, no radar coverage, no weather forecasts. The 22 destination airstrips are programmed into a GPS. All the flying is VFR, except at the nation’s capital, Georgetown, where an instrument approach is possible.
Weather—despite lack of forecasting and reporting facilities—isn’t all guesswork. The several annual rainy intervals can cause the occasional encounter with “a wall of water,” Stoops said. But unlike other parts of the world where such conditions persist for long periods, Guyana’s bad weather typically is “spotty.”
Potential volunteer pilots would travel to Lethem “on their own dime” at an estimated cost of $1,500 and rendezvous with Delese, who is your check pilot. He is a retired working pilot, a 25-year AOPA member, and AOPA’s Airport Support Network volunteer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, back home for the moment after a month in Guyana.
If a prospect and Remote Area Medical click during the familiarization flying (when some government training requirements are also met and logged), the prospect would return at a time to be arranged, this time with Remote Area Medical paying the way. Volunteer pilots get a $1,200 monthly stipend to cover meals, necessities, and “an air-conditioned hotel room—nothing fancy.” (Find the equator on a map, and then find Guyana slightly north of it, and you will see why the air conditioner is a point of emphasis in Stoops’ sales pitch.)
If Remote Area Medical’s name has a familiar ring, it may be because the organization’s outreach to communities in outlying places around the world has received considerable mass media attention. AOPA reported on the group's efforts to improve air access to medical care in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010—and it now plans to base a Cessna Caravan single-engine turboprop donated by FedEx there, Delese said. A second donated Caravan will be positioned for Remote Area Medical operations in the Philippines.
Guyana looms large in the lore of Stan Brock, the organization's founder, author, and a former co-host of the TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The country also played a key role in the founding of Remote Area Medical in 1985, which began with Brock suffering an injury while living with an indigenous Wapishana group in Guyana.
“I was isolated from medical care, which was about a 26 day journey away. I witnessed the near devastation of whole tribes by what would have been simple or minor illnesses to more advanced cultures. When I left Guyana, I vowed to find a way to deliver basic medical aid to people in the world’s inaccessible regions,” he explains on Remote Area Medical’s website.
The challenging flight and living conditions aside, Delese, a former charter company pilot who also flew for Florida’s Forestry Service, says answering the call to service offered him a rare way to give back through aviation.
“I’m retired. I love flying, and I love helping people, so this is a win-win situation for me,” he said.