Pilots, engineers and aid workers all play a vital role in getting relief to where it is needed. Ellie Levenson reports

If one thing is clear about aid operations involving aircraft, it is that all missions are team efforts. From mapping and planning, to flying the aircraft and moving the aid once it’s been delivered, there needs to be a huge amount of organisation, negotiation and communication.

These are three qualities that David Stevens possesses in spades, honed over 23 years of working in logistics for the Royal Air Force and 16 years for British Aerospace. Now aged 65, he’s been on several emergency missions as part of an Emergency Response Unit for the British Red Cross.

“I decided I wanted to put something back into life so I volunteered to do humanitarian work,” he says. This mainly involves working in a team of four to help with the storage and distribution of aid.

“Most operations involves large cargo aircraft chartered by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and carrying up to 40 tonnes of urgent non-food items for distribution to the beneficiaries,” he adds.

“I was at the airhead where the airplanes landed with all the goods, be it tents, kitchen sets or tarpaulin. My job was to get them offloaded and distributed to the warehouses. I work closely not only with the pilots and the crew but with customs and airport officials – one of my primary roles is to network and make contact with the authorities.”

The Emergency Response Unit gets to a disaster zone within 48 hours of an alert being raised, travelling via commercial flights and then road or helicopter.

At the other end of the scale in terms of plane size is the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). A Christian aviation charity based in the developing world, they have over 130 planes operating in 30 countries across Africa, South-east Asia, Australasia and South America, and undertake both religious and humanitarian missions. “We take people and supplies into isolated communities mainly using small light aircraft with a single pilot. Having an aircraft means you can reach places even when roads are cut off,” says Kate Allen, the charity’s head of news, media and PR.

Their work is a combination of being reactive to emergencies and being proactive and looking for opportunities to open up airstrips and help bring in aid. As well as pilots, mainly from Europe, America and Australia and sent out for four years at a time, the charity employs a range of local and overseas people as support staff, working in logistics, engineering and management. They look to recruit Christians who support the visions and values of the organisation, which includes some Christian missionary work. Their non-religious missions include operating an amphibious aircraft in Bangladesh, which has recently flown a group of French doctors to a floating hospital that is towed along riverways, to people in really isolated communities and flying in supplies to fight a meningitis outbreak in a remote part of Sudan.

As well as both large and small charities, much aid via the air is operated by the military. “We can go to any operation anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice,” says Squadron Leader Dave Sommers, a Weapons Systems Officer and second-in-command of the RAF’s 27 Squadron.

He has been involved with several aid efforts including distributing essential supplies to people whose homes were destroyed in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. “That was a race against time as much as anything,” says Sommers. “The winter was setting in very quickly. There were lots of people who had literally had their homes swept away and had lost all of their possessions. They had fled to high up in the mountains with snow starting to fall and desperate for help.” The military operation took in blankets, rations, medical equipment and water, using chinook helicopters.

Sommers is keen to point out that the reason they can deliver aid quickly is because of the team effort that goes into such operations. “There’s a lot of coordination that happens on the ground to ensure the various nations aren’t pulling in different directions. One of our options for moving helicopters around the world is by breaking them down and putting them in aircraft which is a heavily engineered job so these things are a team effort.”

As well as the pilot, there are three other crew members in a Chinook and they are all involved with flight planning, drawing maps, navigation and guiding the pilot to pick up and drop off aid. “The skill sets we’re using here aren’t additional skill sets, they are ones that we’re trained for,” says Sommers. “People join up not necessarily thinking about the time they may be delivering essential aid to a family half- frozen on the side of a Pakistani mountain but when it happens the sense of pride is immense.”

Not all air-aid work is far from home of course. “We’ve also found ourselves delivering sandbags to a power station in Gloucester when they had terrible floods. It’s the same crews involved,” says Sommers.