DAC Aviation International: First Flight
Perhaps it was a question of fate or perhaps destiny, but certainly not coincidence, that the first flight our newly formed aviation company embarked upon was into the heart of one of the worst human catastrophes in modern day history. How could anyone have ever predicted what fate and destiny had in store for us. As we lifted off from runway 09 in Lokichokkio and banked northwards over the mountain range that hid Loki from the north, I can tell you that the level of anxiety ran high. While I had been flying into Sudan for the past 3 years and had seen my fair share of death and destruction and had taken risks that, quite frankly, i’d rather not remember, this time it was different. This time it was our aircraft, our responsibility, our risk. For the first time we were doing this for our company, our people, our future; the stakes were unquestionably high. I had bet my entire aviation career, my financial future and that of my family’s on a thirty day contract and an aircraft that was problematic and unreliable at best. Yet as we climbed to a cruising altitude that maintained a balance between hypoxia and small arms fire, the desire to complete this mission at any cost could not have been any stronger.
Operation Life Line Sudan was a UN operation that had a troubled history and was destined to have a controversial future. The civil war that raged on in Sudan between the north and the south had left millions dead, displaced and starving. The war had torn families apart and pitted brother against brother where the young and innocent suffered most. It was a war where genocide and ethnic cleansing were a daily occurrence and no one was safe especially aircraft. It was the silent war, the white elephant in the room where the rest of the world had turned a convenient blind eye. Yet there we were flying 8.6 metric tonnes of UNICEF food for children called unimix to an unknown village called Waat so that thousands of children could eat and live.
We spotted the village from at least one hundred miles out, not because Waat had any unique land feature, not at all. South Sudan is a featureless landscape where sand, shrub, bush fires, rain and drought change they way it looks daily. What caught our eyes was a black funnel revolving slowly counter clockwise rising up from what was to be our destination. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before and nothing in my past could have prepared me for what I was about to face first hand.
As we approached the coordinates of the village we realized in horror what we had been looking at for the past 30 minutes The black funnel turned out to be thousands of vultures circling overhead the makeshift area where we were to land. The sky was so thick with these creatures that landing seemed to be a certain impossibility. Assuming that these huge birds would be scared off at the sight of the aircraft, we began to circle against them yet all our attempts to do so ended in vain. They would not yield. We decided to attempt an approach knowing that one bird strike in the right area on the aircraft would have been disastrous. It was not until we were short final that we realized the extent of death lying before us; thousands of dead and dying littered the area as far as the eye could see. Men, women and children, over twenty-thousand displaced peoples had waited months for hope to arrive. One cannot describe the sight and smell of death we witnessed in Waat, trying to do so would be futile. The sight of children alive with bloated stomaches lying next to their dead parents while the vultures fought over their bodies and at times feeding on the them as well, people too weak to come to the aircraft while always the shadows of the vultures overhead waiting their turn to land and feast. The people were naked and emaciated covered in the sand of the South and yet quiet and uncomplaining, waiting. It was an overwhelming sight that is indelibly etched in my memory. For the next thirty days we would fly three rotations a day to Waat and slowly that black funnel disappeared. On March 10 1994, seven months after starting this company, the cycle of death and starvation ended for millions of children and their parents.
As we flew to these remote and inaccessible areas of the South, the world finally stood up and took notice. The rest as they say is history, but I can tell you this without a shred of doubt, the perseverance and monumental efforts of the hundreds of men and women that work for this great company every day have made a huge difference, perhaps more so then any other organization to have operated in those regions. Our specialized aircraft and our “DACan-Do” attitude have saved millions of people as well as more then a few UN staff from certain death, gave them hope and ultimately a country they now call their own. Above all else we fed the children where other aircraft operators could not or would not go, and as we turn 20 so to the children we fed that day in Waat. A more nobler cause there is none.