Warrenton-based Air Serv delivers aid to remote areas of the world
By Tracy Baker
In the wake of a global crisis or natural disaster, humanitarian aid organizations rally quickly to dispatch relief efforts. Often this means traveling into dangerous, hard-to-reach locations where conventional means of transportation aren’t practical or, in many cases, possible. When aid workers and supplies are desperately needed, the last thing anyone wants to have to worry about is how they’re going to get where they need to go, and then safely back out again.
That’s where Warrenton-based nonprofit organization Air Serv International steps in.
In 1984, increasing conflicts in Africa combined with a record low rainfall resulted in widespread famine that affected millions. A group of concerned aviators recognized the advantages of using small bush aircraft to aid relief efforts in reaching even the most remote population. Initially conceived in response to the famine in Ethiopia as part of Operation Life Line, Air Serv International was developed out of Mission Aviation Fellowship as a nonsectarian, nonprofit organization that provides “last mile” aviation support for the humanitarian community.
Operating a fleet of seven Cessna Caravans, Air Serv’s mission is to ensure that disaster relief makes it directly into the areas where it is needed most—even if that means utilizing roads, dry river beds, soccer fields, or even, occasionally, the sides of mountains as impromptu airstrips. Few of these remote landing sites offer much in the way of supporting infrastructure, which presents a unique set of obstacles.
In addition to the regular risks associated with flying a small aircraft, Air Serv personnel must monitor the structural integrity of their landing sites, which could easily be compromised by the next downpour. The strip must be kept clear of vegetation and monitored for both people and animals, and even checked for mines or other dangerous materials. And, without reliable electricity, there are no landing lights or control towers to help guide the pilots, which limits Air Serv operations to daylight hours.
In addition to the logistical issues of flying bush aircraft into such primitive conditions, Air Serv faces the difficulty of operating a humanitarian organization primarily in hostile environments. Factors such as language barriers and cultural differences must be taken into consideration, as well as the local political climate, all of which can create challenges for obtaining operating permission.
Despite these obstacles, Danielle Payant, the Public Relations Manager for Air Serv, insists that safety is always their primary concern. “Our priority is maintaining the highest level of safety and ensuring the security of our staff, humanitarian colleagues, and aircraft,” she says. “Every time we open a new program, the security situation must be evaluated.” This includes securing physical resources, such as the aircraft and support equipment, as well as ensuring the wellbeing of the Air Serv crew and ground staff by arranging reliable accommodations and transportation, as well as a safe supply of food and water. Possible security threats inherent to the geographic area of operation are also considered and carefully monitored.
In 2001, Air Serv relocated their headquarters from California to Warrenton in order to be closer to the D.C. ‘hub’ for major humanitarian organizations. “Warrenton offers the proximity to D.C. at a more affordable cost than maintaining an office in the city,” Payant says, “allowing us to focus more of our budget on client needs rather than real estate. Practicality first brought Air Serv here, but over the years, we have also found a home. We truly feel like a part of the community here and very much appreciate the support of the people of Warrenton.”
Air Serv has supported humanitarian aid efforts in such far-flung locations as Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Haiti, and Honduras. In 2003, Air Serv was the first civilian air operator allowed access in Iraq following the end of initial combat operations. In 2010, Air Serv aided the International Federation of Electoral Systems by providing an aircraft for the purpose of registering voters in the most remote villages of what is now South Sudan.
Currently, Air Serv’s focus is in Eastern and Central Africa. There, they work in association with Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Food Programme/United Nations Humanitarian Air Service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Chad. “Our aircraft provide air movement of personnel and cargo which would not otherwise reach their destinations due to various obstacles including lack of infrastructure, political instability, security concerns, and geography,” says Payant. In the future, Air Serv intends to maintain their mission of providing “last mile” air transportation to humanitarian efforts around the globe, possibly expanding regular service into places like Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan, as well as throughout Africa.
Over the past 33 years, Air Serv has provided air transportation for such humanitarian organizations as Save the Children, The World Bank, World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, USAID, and more. Whether it’s delivering medical supplies and relief workers in the aftermath of an earthquake in Asia, transporting food into areas affected by civil unrest in the Middle East, aiding in the evacuation of refugees in Africa, or participating in the rescue and recovery efforts after Katrina, Air Serv International has flown millions of miles and provided access to some of the most inhospitable, inaccessible locations in the world.
Civil conflict, natural disasters and health crises are a sad fact of life in many parts of the world. Those most heavily hit are often the least accessible. Thankfully, there are humanitarian aid organizations with a passion for global service, and Air Serv is there to get them where they need to go.
For more information on Air Serv International, visit www.airserv.org.