Angels take to skies in daring KZN rescue operation

SA's biggest air mercy mission under way to lift tonnes of medical supplies, food and essential items to thousands trapped and cut off by marauding protesters

16 July 2021 - 19:50
By graeme hosken AND Graeme Hosken
Staff from Cem Air load emergency aid onboard an aircraft shortly before flying a relief aid mission to deliver essential supplies to people in KwaZulu-Natal who have been cut off by protesters
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo Staff from Cem Air load emergency aid onboard an aircraft shortly before flying a relief aid mission to deliver essential supplies to people in KwaZulu-Natal who have been cut off by protesters

From across SA they descended on Durban in their numbers, in what is possibly the country’s biggest civilian air mercy mission.

For four days squadrons of aircraft from small experimental planes to commercial airlines have been ferrying tonnes of supplies to thousands of people trapped in towns across KwaZulu-Natal.

Marauding mobs had turned large swathes of the province into piles of burning rubble as they raged through towns looting and burning down shops, malls, food warehouses, pharmacies, clinics and schools.

In response to the anarchy, which also gripped Gauteng, and which began after the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma last week, pilots, aircraft owners and airline companies have been flying rescue and resupply missions.

The missions have seen supplies being delivered to both King Shaka International Airport on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast as well as to tiny airports and aerodromes across the province.

For many of those behind the flights, it was a no brainer when the call for help came.

Miles van der Molen outside the hangar of Cem Air.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo Miles van der Molen outside the hangar of Cem Air.

Cem Air CEO Miles van der Molen, speaking to TimesLIVE, said they were flying from OR Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park to King Shaka International.

“There is a major food and fuel shortage. While we can’t help with the fuel shortage we can deliver food and other essential supplies. On top of that we are bringing people, who desperately need help, out of the danger zone.”

He said their first three flights left on Thursday, with another three taking off on Friday.

“We have 12 tonnes on the floor at the moment with more coming in. The supplies have not stopped coming.”

He said they were transporting lots of basic food stuff, nappies, child care products and other essentials for life.

“We have also been given food parcels, which contain basic supplies. There are so many who need help. We are channelling the supplies through specific NGOs who have footprints in Joburg and Durban.”

Van der Molen said the situation on the ground was very tense.

“The situation is fluid. ACSA (Airports Company SA) is on full alert. We are doing all we can for as long as we can.”

He said the aircraft included 78-seaters, which could carry about four tonnes per leg. We are running multiple flights.”

Van der Molen said they had had a flood of bookings over the past few days with terrified people looking to get out of Durban.

“People are stuck and very scared, they cannot leave by any other way other than by air. The amount of fear in the community is significant. It is a very serious situation.

“We are bringing lots of young people out with very small children. There is absolutely no visible effort by the state to push back this line, and people really feel like they are left to their own devices, with many not wanting to move overnight, or even go to the shops.

“This is fear and the feeling is not talked up at all, they really feel abandoned.”

For Experimental Aircraft Association member Don Kemp, who has volunteered his Cessna 182, he said he had joined the effort “as this is typical SA spirit”.

“If I can help then I want to. This is the way I can help communities and my fellow South Africans. It is just the right thing to do.”

Keaton Perkins who is one of the many civilian pilots helping in the air lift of relief aid to thousands of people trapped by the violence in KwaZulu-Natal.
Image: Keaton Perkins Keaton Perkins who is one of the many civilian pilots helping in the air lift of relief aid to thousands of people trapped by the violence in KwaZulu-Natal.

Pilot Keaton Perkins, also of the association, said one had to step up and help where one could.

Preparing to airlift 250kg of supplies for a flight on Saturday to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and Virginia Airport in Durban North from Petite in Ekurhuleni, he said what he was doing was the easy part.

“We have the means and we can do it. We are among dozens of pilots from across SA who are doing the same thing.

“There are people who own planes, who have volunteered their aircraft and fuel and sponsored flights. Pilots, who have the means as they can fly, are just jumping in and doing the work that needs to be done.”

He said pilots from the association were airlifting supplies into various areas across KwaZulu-Natal and hauling people out.

“The supplies being flown will include baby formula, nappies, medicines, basic and essential food items.

“Wherever there is an airport, airstrip or aerodrome pilots are flying from them as quickly as possible. It is all been highly co-ordinated.”

Brakpan pilot Frederik Kotzee said they were involved because people were in serious trouble.

Speaking as he was about to take off from Pietermaritzburg, he said it was a way of giving back to communities. “We have wings and we can fly, which is what we are doing.”

He said he had lost count of the number of flights he had done into the province over the past week. “Wherever help is needed I am going.”

Justin Reeves, CEO of Comair Flight Services, said they were involved because of the dire need.

“We were initially dealing with evacuation requests but they quickly turned to requests for freight to Durban.

“A WhatsApp group we started on Monday now has 113 aviation companies who are pooling resources to provide help.

“We have been ferrying various supplies. By one company we have been charted to put an aircraft online and ferry seven tonnes of supplies to people who are desperate. Another flight of ours on Saturday is taking 10 tonnes of essential cargo.”

He said they had received calls from people across the province, especially doctors who are stuck in remote areas who desperately need medical supplies.

Reeves said their focus was now on the people, clinics and medical facilities in remote areas which desperately needed supplies, which was time critical and which would make a massive difference in saving lives.

“Its heartwarming to see what people are willing to do. As a nation we are so much more than what we have seen on the TV in past week.”

As a nation we are so much more than what we have seen on the TV in past week
Justin Reeves, CEO of Comair Flight Services

Louise Olckers, general manager of the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa, said a co-ordinated system of flights, involving volunteer and chartered flights, was carrying vital goods, people and services and making evacuations to and from affected areas in KwaZulu-Natal.

She said the supplies that were being airlifted included food, essential products and medical supplies.

The supplies, said Olckers, were being airlifted to King Shaka and Virginia airports and then onto affected areas as and where required.

In terms of aviation fuel supply shortages because of the surge of flights into airports in KwaZulu-Natal, she said Virginia airport was nearly empty.

“Resupply has been prepared and we are awaiting this to happen. Some fuel companies have had their fuel trucks burnt which is hampering supply operations and they now need security.”

She said once landed the supplies were being transported by NGOs which were on the ground. “We are running very quick distribution points.”

Olckers described the help from the aviation community with offers of use of aircraft and pilots as phenomenal.

“When disaster hits our country, the aviation community stands together to bring relief to those in dire need.

“It is at times like these that municipalities should realise the value of having an airstrip in each and every town.”

TimesLIVE