By Garth Calitz
Photo by Garth Calitz and Gary Shepard
No sooner had the news of the wide-scale looting and destruction reached the ears of the rest of the country when aviators from all over started mobilising to transport whatever was needed in the hot spots. One day after parts of KwaZulu Natal were devastated by the unrest, food and other essential products became almost impossible to find.
An organisation was created called “Noodvlugvleuel” (Emergency Flight Wing) they collaborated with both Commercial Aviation Association Southern Africa (CAASA) and the Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) to centralise the coordination of the mercy flights. Santjie White, the former Aeronautical Search and Rescue Coordination Centre Chief, took it on herself to monitor all mercy flights insuring that all aircraft are accounted for at any given time.
WhatsApp became a tool for accessing the need, once a request was received it was forwarded to the volunteers that offered their time to coordinate the process. Needs were then matched with donors and finally, a suitable volunteer aircraft was assigned to transport the goods to the hot spots.
Virginia Airport, which normally has very few movements, had become one of the busiest airports in the country logging over one hundred arrivals per day for the first few days of the crisis. Hopefully, this highlighted the need for a general aviation hub in Durban. Mr Glen Bryce, Manager of Virginia Airport, and his team did a remarkable job of ensuring the smooth landing, offloading and eventual departure of all the aircraft. Availability of fuel had become a major problem over the week of crisis with both Avgas and JetA1 stocks running very low by Wednesday. With the fuel shortage in Durban many smaller aircraft, without the endurance to fly in and out without uplifting extra fuel were forced to abandon their aid efforts or hand over their load to larger aircraft that didn’t need to take on fuel for the return flight.
Margate and Richards Bay Airport saw similar activity over the week of the unrest. Smaller aircraft also made deliveries to more remote areas like Ballito Bay and Scottburgh making use of local micro-lighting strips.
I was invited to join one of these flights to Durban operated by Aeronautical Aviation’s owner Clinton Carroll. He was planning to fly a load of food, baby nappies and baby formula to an NPO in Durban that would distribute it where needed. Initially, The plan was to depart at 10:00 but the low cloud hanging over Lanseria delayed the take-off for a few hours.
When the weather had cleared sufficiently we taxied out with the Barron 58 loaded to very much maximum take-off weight. As soon as we were airborne it became evident that we were by no means the only aircraft heading to KZN, the radio was awash with calls from other pilots from all over Gauteng and Limpopo heading south with relief for the affected communities.
Pilots from the coastal areas often refer to Gauteng as “Big Smoke” sadly this dubious title had now been reversed, as we closed in on KZN a distinct brown layer of smoke became visible hanging over the whole coastal region and stretching far inland, a sad testament to the utter destruction that was taking place. Flying to the east Pietermaritzburg one could see that there were many areas that were still ablaze and the roads in the area were all but deserted.
Once entering the Durban airspace the true magnitude of the air bridge became apparent with the sheer volume of aircraft making their way to both Virginia and King Shaka Airports. The air traffic controllers although pressurised to never before seen levels managed to keep control of the situation and still took time to assist pilots not familiar with the area with local VFR procedures.
The air pollution in the northern area of Durban was so intense that it was very difficult to make out landmarks, even the fairly large Inanda Dam was almost unidentifiable. The smell of smoke was so intense that at one stage Clinton was concerned that we may have had a fire on board. Passing over the Hillcrest area one could see the devastation on the ground, shopping centres were totally destroyed and some of them were raised to the ground by the ensuing fires.
The harbour area looked totally deserted with a few fires still smouldering adding to the terrible pollution. Just as with the area ATC’s the Virginia ATC team were managing the increased traffic load very well and we were very soon on final approach to Virginia.
Once on the ground, we were marshalled to a parking spot between the many aircraft that were busy unloading, many of them were returning to their home bases to load the next shipment of aid. We were on the ground for a very short period to unload our cargo, but in that time there were aircraft landing every few minutes, predominately Pilatus PC12’s, Beech King Airs and Cessna Caravans. Many of the aircraft were carrying pax when they left, mostly elderly people that were relocating to safer areas of South Africa.
Amongst the many aircraft were both South African Police Services and South African Airforce aircraft these were carrying cargo and were quickly loaded into police and military vehicles. A Cessna Grand Caravan filled to the brim with medicals supplies was also hastily offloaded into waiting vehicles escorted by two Netcare 911 response vehicles.
A host of Helicopters were also active in the area ranging from Robison 44 to a SAAF Oryx. Many helicopters were uploading cargo that was delivered by the fixed-wings, one can assume this was to be taken to more remote areas where it is impossible to land a fixed-wing.
The response to this crisis by the Aviation community has been overwhelming many of these pilots were flying the aid flights at their own cost, considering a twin like the Baron we flew down in would consume roughly R10000 worth of fuel per return trip, this definitely is nothing to be scoffed at.