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Pilots – the Unsung Heroes

Pat Repka on the Lockichockio airstrip

By Fiona O'Reilly

About the most exciting thing to do in Loki is an airdrop - so Vito in the flight coordination office organised that I go on the flight drop to Longochock. A flight drop is where 16 tonnes of food are dropped from a Hercules in mid-flight. This is the way most of the food is delivered to south Sudan. Obviously where areas are accessible by road food is transported over land, however, this is not an option in the majority of cases because of poor infrastructure, seasonal rains and insecurity. At the height of the crisis in 1998, food-rations of up to 12,000 MTs were flown in each month to south Sudan. In January 1999 >8MTs<check with fiona> were delivered by air.

Pat Repka (ex US airforce) was my pilot for the airdrop. Pat has been flying around this part of the world and in and out of war zones for more years that he would care to admit. Recently he lost two colleagues who were shot down in Angola. One of them was the chief pilot for TRANSAFRIK - leaving Pat to take over this position. Pat and his copilot Derek got into the usual gung-ho banter intended to shock, surprise, or just entertain guests like myself. They told me they hadn't lost too many passengers while dropping the food. When we reached the drop site I put on the harness and stood at the back of the plane. As the door opened the plane went into a 45-degree sudden incline and half the load was dropped. While flying over the huge expanse of cracked land below, I was struck by the monumental environmental constraints facing people trying to survive and those endeavouring to help them. Longochock is in upper Nile region about 400 miles north east of Lockichockio on the Kenyan border and as we approached it was possible to see flooded areas due to the effects of El Niño. Longochock from the air looked like a small village. I was impressed (whether or not I should have been), that under OLS not only did a sufficiently sophisticated logistics system operate to locate and target this small village with food dropped from a C-130 Hercules, but also that there was a WFP food monitor on the ground to receive and attempt to distribute that food. Another thing that impressed me (I was having a good day), was the extremely humble attitude of the pilots exemplified by the comments "just doing a job" and "I just like to fly" (in an American accent). The pilots consider themselves as foot soldiers and rarely get into philosophical discussions, as aid workers frequently do, about the bigger picture and 'what happens to the food' and 'what it is all for anyway'. Sure their task might be considered straight-forward and uncomplicated but there are very likely as many dos and don'ts in flying a plane and in running the logistics of the air operation as there are in implementing a TFC or SFC. The point is that there is probably only one way to do it right. The pilots like their job. Yes, they get well paid and there is an absolute necessity for technical precision. They do their job to meet the standards of their profession, unaffected by humanitarian principles and codes of conduct. As I enjoyed the hospitality of the Tracmark camp in Loki where a lot of the pilots stay, I wondered if my fellow humanitarians still (after 10 years of operation) living in the make-shift and decidedly un-luxurious OLS compound, could not learn something from the pilots. The humanitarian effort might do better with a few more foot soldiers aiming for technical precision and standards, ready and able to implement these at the height of a crisis. Also, better pay and living conditions probably contributed to the longer time many of the pilots had been based in Loki compared to their relief-worker counterparts.

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Fiona O’Reilly (1999). Pilots – the Unsung Heroes. Field Exchange 6, February 1999. p28. www.ennonline.net/fex/6/pilots

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