Flying Aid Workers in Afghanistan: A Tricky Business

UNHAS often operates flights to places where commercial operators won't go.

(Copyright: WFP/Challiss McDonough)

Not all pilots would relish the idea of landing a plane on Faizabad’s perforated metal runway high in the mountains of northern Afghanistan, and even the bravest might think twice about taking off in high winds ahead of an approaching sandstorm in Kandahar.

KABUL --  Ben Hiebert smiles when he talks about the challenges of flying in Afghanistan for UNHAS, the UN Humanitarian Air Service, which is managed by WFP and provides safe, reliable air transportation to the humanitarian community, including UN staff and NGOs.

“It’s just an amazing place to fly, with all the mountains,” the Canadian pilot said with a broad grin on a recent morning before starting his pre-flight checklist.

“It’s such a busy airspace, too,” Hiebert added.  “Listen to the radio, and it’s just nonstop. You hear these air traffic controllers talking to air crews from literally everywhere in the world.”

On a recent Monday, Hiebert was first officer of an UNHAS air crew flying north toward the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.  Their itinerary illustrates many of the challenges of flying in Afghanistan.

In addition to Mazar, the plane was carrying passengers to and from Kunduz and Maimana, two locations that have become nearly impossible to access by road over the last year because of poor security.  For most of the aid workers on board, UNHAS is the only way to reach those cities.

"Tough place to fly"

The plane was also scheduled to stop in Faizabad, a peaceful city nestled in the mountains of the northeast, but the crew had to cancel that stop because of heavy snowfall blanketing the runway.

“Afghanistan is a tough place to fly.  We call it an unfriendly aviation environment,” said UNHAS Chief of Air Operations Jared K’Omwono.  “There’s limited infrastructure, mountainous terrain and extreme weather, with hot summers and cold winters.”

K’Omwono, a Kenyan, is a veteran of UNHAS operations in Sudan and West Africa, and he speaks with characteristic understatement when describing the challenges of running a humanitarian air service in Afghanistan.

“We go to places where not even commercial operators will go, for example Farah,” K’Omwono said. “We go there once or twice a week, with two or three passengers, but those passengers are critical to the humanitarian community there.  Our interest is not to fill the planes, we go there because of the need to run those programmes.”

Land safely

With its forbidding environment, Afghanistan would be a tough place for an air service even if it were at peace, and the country’s ongoing conflict adds another layer of difficulty.  A few months ago, an UNHAS crew noticed something alarming when they landed in Herat – a bullet hole in the right engine cowling.  The plane had been struck by an AK-47 round.  Fortunately, the plane was able to land safely, but the incident shows the hazards that UNHAS faces in Afghanistan.

“You need to make sure you have the right aircraft to be able to fly in this the environment,” K’Omwono says.  “We have to have use twin-engine aircraft here, even though they’re more expensive.  With all these mountains, it’s an absolute must.  If an engine fails for any reason, the other engine will keep you in the air until you can land safely.”

UNHAS flies to 10 domestic locations around Afghanistan, plus flights to Islamabad in neighboring Pakistan.  For the last year, the service has been funded largely by contributions from Japan, which recently donated an additional $6 million to UNHAS, as well as from the United States and the European Union.

“We are so grateful to Japan and other donors for the support that keeps UNHAS running, because without it the humanitarian community would be unable to reach some of the neediest areas of the country,” said Louis Imbleau, WFP Representative in Afghanistan.