Aviation Sans Frontieres flys to desperate places to help people in need. P1 speaks to chief pilot Jean-Claude Cuisine Etienne
Q. How did you get involved with Aviation Sans Frontieres?
I was an airline pilot and I retired from Air France in 2004.
I wasn’t so happy since I was fond of my job! I was contacted by then-president Primo Biason, who was also my former aircrew supervisor while I was working for Air Inter. He told me: “Come to ASF, It will be fun!” This is how it all started…
Q. What does ASF do, and how is it funded? Where do you get the aircraft and pilots?
In 1980, Aviation Sans Frontieres (Aviation Without Borders) was created thanks to three pilots. Today, ASF is a link between numerous NGOs relying on our expertise and populations in need of assistance. Recognised as promoting the public interest and a partner of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, ASF uses its teams’ aeronautical expertise to serve humanitarian causes by carrying out several missions:
• Aircraft missions – which are mainly funded by the United Nations: Three Cessna Caravan planes, located in Africa, allow the conveyance of humanitarian aid, emergency medical evacuations and logistical support to more than 180 associations and NGOs.
• Child escorting – for those in need of urgent medical attention, unavailable in their home country. Accompanied on regular flights by volunteers who are granted low fare tickets, these children can be treated in European hospitals then brought back to their families.
• Medical supplies and humanitarian cargo – pharmaceutical products, emergency aid or surgical goods are sent daily to dispensaries and orphanages.
• Missions in France – in cooperation with flying clubs, ASF offers socially disadvantaged children and teenagers or disabled youngsters the possibility to fly (‘Ailes du Sourire’, Wings for Smiling) or to discover the aeronautical world using dedicated software.
Our planes are bought second-hand, on our own dime. Our pilots are all volunteers, and they are selected based on their qualifications. We are very strict about the recruitment of our pilots! For instance, they need to have completed a minimum of 550 hours of flight time. In order to be qualified as captain, they need their 200 hours on type.
Q. What is your role in ASF?
I am the chief pilot for ASF’s Aircraft Missions. My role is to coordinate air operations on a daily basis. I recruit pilots, train them, start new missions, coordinate air operations with WFP, NGOs, etc.
Q. What difference do you think ASF makes?
ASF is a humanitarian association: we only fly with certified humanitarian partners, with no financial motives. Our planes here at ASF allow us to reach the most remote areas. In Africa, where we work, roads are in bad shape, if they exist at all. Several weeks by road or dugout canoe represent only a few hours by plane.
In addition, they are unsafe for humanitarian workers. Planes are a unique asset to have. In June 2012, ASF obtained an Air Operator Certificate from the French civil aviation authorities to comply with UN standards. This AOC is important for us and our partners, since it embodies our ability to safely operate flights. There are strict regulations imposed by our European AOC such as a certified Part 145 workshop and a certified Part M airworthiness monitoring. We are controlled by both EASA and the French DGAC. Besides, while our Cessna 208B Caravan are certified for single-pilot operations, ASF only operates with two pilots to comply with the complexity of flight conditions: bad weather, cut-off areas, etc. Flight safety is our motto!
Q. What work is ASF currently doing?
We currently have three Aircraft Missions being carried out: One in the DRC, for the HCR and the UN regarding refugees from Central African Republic; One in Guinea engaged in the fight against Ebola: we have been mandated by the French government. We transport doctors, medical supplies and we evacuate medical workers suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus. Just recently, we moved the third Caravan to Bangui (Central Africa Republic) in order to help the humanitarian community and also supply UNHAS operations.
Q. Describe a typical mission that ASF has completed?
We have been working in the DRC for over eight years, with funds coming from the UN. We provide humanitarian air support for NGOs helping them moving through a country five times larger than France. Humanitarian flights allow NGOs to carry out missions in the most remote areas and to access vulnerable populations. We transport humanitarian personnel, basic equipment and conduct medical evacuation of persons in need of medical attention.
Q. What is the biggest challenge ASF faces in 2015?
In 2015, ASF celebrates 35 years of existence. This is important for us because we have come a long way since our first mission in 1980 but many challenges still exist. 2014 was a particularly dramatic year from the humanitarian point of view and many crises persist in 2015: South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria or the Ebola outbreak just to mention Africa! We have to keep doing our missions to help people around the world.
Q. What is the best thing about working with ASF?
Challenges! When I arrived in 2004 at ASF, it was very challenging for me. After being an air traffic controller and then an airline pilot, I had to learn a new job that was completely unknown to me –being a chief pilot.
Later, we had a new challenge: getting an AOC. It took a lot of effort – about two years of work – in order to comply with European regulations. But today we are recognised in the humanitarian community: it’s very motivating! We are proud, as an association, to hold a European AOC like any other airline.
Finally, I would mention the tasks we perform in Africa: as airline pilots, we have to work in very difficult and unusual conditions. In fact, we are more than pilots when we take someone in charge and save a life. At that moment you think that if you had not been there, the person would be dead. This is unforgettable.
Aviation Sans Frontieres (Aviation Without Borders) was founded in 1980 and provides a vital link between NGOs and people in medical and humanitarian need around the world. You can find out more information about ASF’s work, or make a donation, by visiting their website www.asf-fr.org