It’s not easy becoming a pilot for Air Serv.
First, a candidate must meet “the technical requirements – the number of hours and type of aircraft flown – qualifications required by any organization or company,” said Stuart Willcuts, the humanitarian organization’s president and chief executive officer.
That’s especially important at Air Serv, “because we fly where we fly – we’re 90 percent bush-flying – so part of our interview is confirming all the technical requirements are met,” he said.
But technical ability alone is not enough.
“The question is, can you really fly for Air Serv,” said Willcuts. Such factors as attitude, understanding the mission and client care all factor in the hiring process.
After all, flying for Air Serv, which describes itself as providing the “last mile” of air transportation needed to support humanitarian programs and disaster relief operations in some of the most dangerous areas of the world, isn’t like flying for United or British Airways.
Willcuts noted that “once in awhile, we have to drive a herd of cows down the runway to make sure there are no mines” buried in the path of the aircraft.
“The [Air Serv] pilot is the guy who loads the bags, checks people in and discusses any issues on the ground with local officials or local rebels or local powerbrokers or local passengers who are working for humanitarian organizations,” Willcuts said.
“Sometimes the local official of the village or the community wants to collect a fee, or they’ve got this cousin or that cargo they want you to carry. And all that takes a considerable amount of diplomatic skill and cultural awareness. So, just to fly an airplane isn’t good enough,” he said.
Air Serv is actually two organizations. There’s Air Serv International, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation based in Warrenton, Va. Its staff of seven applies for grants from government agencies and private foundations to finance its mission of providing air transport of humanitarian organizations. The staff also coordinates with other relief organizations.
And then there’s Air Serv Limited, established in 1997 and based at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. This wholly owned Ugandan for-profit owns six Cessna Caravans and leases a seventh to carry out its humanitarian missions.
Currently, Air Serv employs 21 pilots, 18 of whom are Ugandans, with the remainder Americans and Europeans. It also employs 110 mechanics and other personnel, the vast majority of whom are Ugandan.
Air Serv can trace its roots back to 1984 when members of the Mission Aviation Fellowship in Florida decided they wanted to get involved in delivering relief supplies and personnel to struggling countries in Africa.
Air Serv currently has staff and operations in Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.
Willcuts said Air Serv recruits its pilots from flight schools in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. “We’ve taken a lot of students from these schools, and even some instructors,” he said. Willcuts boasted that Air Serv has “the largest number of Ugandan pilots of any organization in the country by far.”
Willcuts says on average pilots remain with his organization for three years. “But like all good pilots, they aspire to fly bigger airplanes. We have some pilots go on to fly 777s for Emirates; others fly for Spirit Airlines in the U.S., Horizon Air, Alaska Airlines.”
This is actually Willcuts’ second term as the head of the organization. He previously held the same position between 2000 and 2006, during which Air Serv’s fleet expanded rapidly, with revenue over $40 million in 2005 and 32 aircraft operating in 12 countries.
Willcuts returned to head the organization in January of this year.
People and medical supplies make up the bulk of what Air Serv transports. “Transporting food, to be honest, is a poor use of aircraft unless people are actually dying. Trucking in supplies is much cheaper.”
So far, it’s been a busy year. In July alone, Air Serv reports it flew 53,550 nautical miles, carried 72,449 pounds of cargo and transported 1,884 passengers.
Air Serv’s latest mission is to ferry supplies and personnel in and around the Kananga area of the DRC.
“We got a request from several NGOs to provide transport between Kananga and Goma [both in the DRC] to support humanitarian response,” he said. According to a recent article in The New York Times, thousands of bodies have been discovered in mass graves throughout the region.
“About 500,000 people have been displaced,” Willcuts. “It’s really a sad, sad situation.”
While Air Serv expects its current mission to last a minimum of six months, Willcuts suspects its services will be needed for much longer. “Given the reality of conditions on the ground there, I suggest we’re going to be there for a year or two,” he said.
While Air Serv’s can trace its origins to a desire to provide relief to victims of natural disasters, Willcuts concedes that its missions today are usually in response to man-made crises.
“Every now and then, we get a solid natural disaster, like the tsunami or earthquake where there’s no politics involved. The world just responds,” he said.
He noted that Air Serv has deployed to assist 60-odd NGOs working in South Sudan and northern Uganda alone. “There’ll be 1 million refugees in Uganda by the end of August,” he predicted.
“Sadly, I have to say that our current programs involve responding to human-generated disasters,” Willcuts said. “And sadly, they’re the ones that last for a long time.”
The dangers posed by those disasters can be both physical and political.
“There are two kinds of dangers,” Willcuts said. “There’s the guns-and-bullets danger – and that’s clearly a problem in South Sudan,” he said.
On the other hand, there’s also the political danger.
“In South Sudan, there’s a lot of kidnapping and ransom going on. We would not deploy a Ugandan pilot to fly there,” he said. “We’d send an expat instead because they get more respect from the locals and everyone knows that America or Canada would not look kindly on one of its citizens being taken.
“If you look at the operation in the DRC, there are both political and guns-and-bullets dangers. The UN peacekeepers why fly there have taken a few rounds to their helicopters,” he said.
“If we fly members of the UN human rights commission there, there are several sides that would not want them to be successful in their investigation. So that makes the issue of security more complicated,” he said.
Willcuts said the nature of providing humanitarian relief has changed in recent years.
“Before, we were the only one providing humanitarian services,” he said. “Now, there are a lot of private operators who are looking at humanitarian relief as a for-profit business. So now we have competition.
“But we’re still the only NGO proving this service, so we’re looked at by the humanitarian community as one of them, which makes a big difference,” he said. “We go places where the for-profits don’t go. We will play to those strengths and continue our mission in our unique way.”
Willcuts said he expects the need for his organization’s unique service to continue to grow: “The need for humanitarian aid is increasing but the resources available are not keeping pace.”