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Published on 19 Jul 2022

Interview with ‘Aviation Sans Frontières’

For 40 years, Aviation Sans Frontières has been using the resources and skills of the aeronautical world for humanitarian purposes. Every day, the association and its volunteers use the air transport network and their own aircraft fleet to assist people in need throughout the world. Acting as a key player in several humanitarian causes, the NGO tells us more about its missions and upcoming projects.

Can you tell us more about the "Wings of Smiles" operation? What is its link with Aviation Sans Frontières? How long have you been running these missions?
After a start marked by the use of all aviation skills for the benefit of populations in difficulty abroad, Aviation Sans Frontières carried out its first operation within French territory in 1995 with the "Wings of Smile". The aim was to organise days of aviation discovery based on the values of sharing and conviviality for people with disabilities or social difficulties.
Several occasional events followed before the activity became permanent fixture based at La Ferté-Alais. More "Wings of Smile" branches were then created in Aix-les-Milles, Toulouse, Saint-Omer… There are now about ten of them spread throughout France.
Some have developed significantly, progressively becoming regional delegations. The first to be inaugurated was in Toulouse in 1999. In the European home of aeronautics, this delegation has established a very strong relationship with ATR and Airbus to enable the transport of humanitarian freight during aircraft deliveries.
This is one of the strengths of this delegation, which is also very involved in supporting sick children, medical messaging and, of course, the "Wings of Smile". The same goes for the regional delegation in Aix-les-Milles, near Aix-en-Provence: created in 2000, it is also very active in these fields.
In total, Aviation Sans Frontières now has three regional delegations, which are real incubators where generous volunteers are active every day, driven by the desire to provide ever more help to vulnerable populations.
The new Aviation Sans Frontières branch was created in Nice, and the "Wings of Smile" days were organized at Cannes-Mandelieu airport. An eventful calendar is planned for the upcoming year.

Why did you choose Cannes as your new antenna?
During summer 2019 and in partnership with several provincial airports, Aviation Sans Frontières conducted an information & awareness-raising campaign among travelers with a strong presence of volunteers in airports. These ground operations have led to an obvious connection with the Nice Côte d'Azur Airport and its Foundation, which works within the region and promotes solidarity actions for people with reduced mobility.
Cannes and its airport represent a major reference within the aeronautical family. For Aviation Sans Frontières, it is essential to reinforce its local actions, as close as possible to our territories. Our collaboration with several local associations providing assistance and support to people with disabilities led us to choose Cannes as the headquarters for the new Aviation Sans Frontières branch.

Do you have a particular memory/anecdote that you will always remember?
A day of the "Wings of Smile" that was not quite like any other. It was a discovery flight for a little boy with his father. This adorable child made his last flight that day. He was suffering from cancer and passed away 3 months later. His father wrote us a few weeks later to thank us and tell us how much seeing his son smile that day had affected him deeply.

What is the biggest challenge the association has faced?
Aviation Sans Frontières regularly has to face several challenges: seeking an economic balance that is often delicate, constantly reorganizing the various missions to better adapt to the current conditions and defining solutions to new emerging needs. One of our challenges is also the capacity to quickly act for those who need it.

Following the extent of the first Covid-19 wave and the significant needs of hospitals as well as private structures (e.g. nursing homes) imposed by the pandemic, the operational teams of Aviation Sans Frontières, detached from their daily missions, set up a collaborative platform that allowed the rapid dispatch of medical staff and small medical equipment in France and Europe.
Thus, this is the result of the operations organized by Aviation Sans Frontières between April 7th and June 30th, 2020.
• more than 435 flight hours
• more than 300 stopovers (including set-ups)
• more than 420 passengers transported
• 26 different operators used
• 24 different types of aircraft (from the single-engine four-seater Cirrus SR22 to the three-engine Dassault Falcon 8X business jet)
• 65 airports used, mainly in France (60) and abroad (Switzerland, Luxembourg and Great Britain).

The next major challenge that will be faced by « Les Ailes de l’humanitaire » is by far the renewal of the fleet which has reached the end of its life. We have just launched the renewal of the Aviation Sans Frontières fleet and this is undoubtedly one of the most important challenges we currently face.

How do you recruit your pilots?
Through its aircraft based in Africa, Aviation Sans Frontières is able to transport humanitarian staff, deliver essential goods and carry out emergency medical evacuations. It provides logistical support to hundreds of Non-Governmental Organizations and international organisations. Among them, the WFP, Handicap International, Action against Hunger, ALIMA, the French Red Cross... An organisation adapted to difficult conditions. The Aviation Sans Frontières fleet is made up of 2 Cessna Grand Caravan, each of which can carry 12 passengers or 1 ton of basic necessities. The missions are often carried out in difficult conditions: hostile environment, difficult weather, poorly equipped bush land. For this reason, each mission is carried out with two pilots. The recruitment and training of pilots is a long and thorough process.

Each pilot is first pre-selected:
On the CV: They must have 500 hours of flight time including 50 hours minimum on Cessna Caravan or a Cessna SET qualification. They must hold a commercial pilot licence (CPL), a multi-crew coordination rating (MCC) or a training for working in crew, an instrument rating (IFR), a level 4 English language qualification and a class 1 medical assessment (commercial pilot).
Then, they have an office interview with the chief pilot.
Finally, they proceed to a flight test on a SEP (single engine piston) class aircraft.

Before leaving on a mission, the pilot will undergo Off Line Training and Off Line Control (i.e. without passengers on board) in a multi-pilot configuration, as Aviation Sans Frontières Caravans are always operated by two pilots: a captain, placed on the left, and the co-pilot on the right. The pilot will also attend a pre-mission briefing (safety reminder, geopolitical information on the country, operation-specific data).

On his first mission, the pilot will act as a co-pilot along with an AEL/CEL qualified captain, and he will perform the Online Adaptation. Once qualified, the pilot must meet the maintenance of skills by flight checks with an Aviation Sans Frontières instructor: he will perform 1 off-line training (EHL) per year, 1 off-line check (CHL pilot check) every 6 months and 1 line check (CEL) per year. After the decision of the Chief Pilot, and after having reached 750 hours of flight time, of which 200 hours minimum on Caravan, the co-pilot can start the training as a Captain. Following this training, the pilot will be checked in flight and will be able to fly as a Captain.

Do the airlines help you in your missions? If so, which ones?
Airlines are essential partners in many of our missions.
Air France, a long-standing partner, has supported Aviation Sans Frontières since its creation in 1980 through three of its pilots. The airline provides financial support and transport facilities for our crews on mission in Africa. Aviation Sans Frontières aircraft are maintained by the staff of a PART 145 approved workshop. Many active or retired employees of Air France, and other airlines operating in France (Transavia, Air Caraïbes, etc.), are part of our volunteer teams, including the support of children in need of emergency care around the world.

How does Aviation Sans Frontières manage the risk factors when operating in sensitive countries?
The safety of volunteers on the ground and risk management are at the heart of Aviation Sans Frontières’ concerns. Our association operates in strict collaboration with institutional partners: it is a partner of the United Nations Economic and Social Council as well as of the European Commission's Directorate General for Humanitarian Assistance and Civil Protection. As far as flight operations are concerned, Aviation Sans Frontières is the first NGO to hold a European Air Operator's Certificate (AOC) in the same way as any certified airline.

Which countries do you operate in the most?
The Air Missions operate from our bases in Central African Republic (Bangui) and Democratic Republic of Congo (Bunia). The Assistance of Sick Children mission helps children mainly from West African countries.

How did you manage the increase in the number of operations caused by the health crisis?
From the start of the crisis, Aviation Sans Frontières rallied the aviation community to provide logistical support to hospitals and caregivers throughout France.

Our NGO, whose ground of operation is usually sub-Saharan Africa, made it possible for medical staff to reach more quickly and in better conditions the hospitals where they were expected to work, mainly in the regions of Eastern France and Île de France.

To increase the system efficiency and improve its responsiveness, an online platform as well as a team of flight operations managers were set up to put caregivers in touch with private aircraft operators, business aviation manufacturers and flight schools. In total, more than 420 caregivers were transported free of charge to 65 destinations, mainly in France (60), but also in Switzerland, Luxembourg and as far away as the United Kingdom.

In parallel to the transport of caregivers, Aviation Sans Frontières also managed an unprecedented mobilisation process of airline flight attendants, who were grounded due to the pandemic. After a specific training, these air transport professionals came to support the hospital staff of the Paris public hospital system. They act as reinforcements in patients’ care and their families in the city. In the hospitals and EHPADs of the Ile de France region, these air professionals provided invaluable assistance for reception, support and prevention missions. They also took part in the « COVISAN » missions set up at the request of the government to stop the spread of the epidemic after the end of the lockdown. During the final stages of the pandemic, our volunteers supported healthcare workers during vaccination campaigns. In total, more than 400 volunteers were engaged on the ground throughout the health crisis.

What has the sponsorship of Thomas Pesquet brought to the association?
True to the values he defends, from the protection of the environment to our living conditions on Earth, Thomas Pesquet decided to commit himself alongside the 800 volunteers of Aviation Sans Frontières. As a pilot and aviation enthusiast, Thomas Pesquet wanted to join an NGO on a human scale; his choice was therefore naturally Aviation Sans Frontières. That was in September 2019... Since then, he has put his fame at the service of Aviation Sans Frontières. Our association has thus gained notoriety among the general public, which has also facilitated the search for new volunteers, essential to carry out our missions. We have also noticed an increased visibility towards new potential partners. A very positive result for our association.

What are the next projects of Aviation Sans Frontières?
The renewal of the Aviation Sans Frontières fleet. The Aircraft Missions will have to make major investments in the years to come. Indeed, our fleet is old and leads to numerous breakdowns and high maintenance costs. In addition, our operations are carried out in rough terrain, in all weather conditions: our aircraft are put to the test and wear out more quickly. A long and thorough exploratory mission, conducted both technically and financially, concluded that new aircraft were needed.
The replacement of our F-OJJC aircraft was carried out at the beginning of the year and was financed by a bank loan, while the replacement of the F-OJJD will be carried out after the renewal of the contracts with UNHAS in the second half of 2022 with a new or recent aircraft. We will therefore appeal to all our partners, while seeking new supporters and donors, to finance the purchase of the aircraft and thus ensure the sustainability of our mission, which is essential for populations in need. These new Cessna aircraft, with their improved performance (storage capacity and number of passengers carried, flight control system technology) will enable us in the medium term to optimise our resources and, above all, to better meet the requirements of humanitarian logistics.

An aircraft maintenance hangar in Bangui. In June 2021 we launched a national crowdfunding campaign to transform a hangar located at Bangui-M'poko airport into a maintenance centre for our fleet. Thanks to the response of our donors, this project has become a reality. Despite some delays due to health constraints and lengthy administrative procedures, our maintenance hangar is now operational. An important asset of this MRO centre (in French: Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) is that it can accommodate the maintenance of the three types of aircraft used by the United Nations: the Cessna Caravan, the Let 410 and the Beechcraft 1900. In this way, we hope to put our expertise at the service of all humanitarian actors operating in the region.

We also intend to recruit as volunteers mechanics who have already graduated from the Institut Amaury de la Grange and who, after 3 years in our Part 145 workshop (EASA approval), will be able to acquire their Part 66 mechanic's licence and offer these services to the CEMAC zone - Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa. Aviation Sans Frontières is also appealing for help to finance and install solar panels on the roof of the hangar, in order to make it as self-sufficient as possible in energy and thus reduce its carbon footprint.

© Photo Zeppelin

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