Palma, in the Balearic Islands, was Wednesday the end of the first day of flight, a difficult introduction in the cloud masses with a non-de-iced plane, a useless (and expensive) option for this Cessna from Aviation sans frontières (ASF), which will then only fly in Africa. As tradition dictates, this brand new plane – a 12-seat Cessna Grand Caravan 208 – was doused by the nozzles of fire engines during takeoff from Le Bourget, adding a little water to the pouring rain of the morning. On the second day, the plane crosses Algeria, where only stopovers for refueling are authorized, which will not prevent Thomas Pesquet from marveling at the discovery of the desert which had already intrigued him during his last Alpha space mission at 400 km altitude. “The plane, for me, is the way to come back to earth,” he explains.
The rest of the flight plan to Bangui is confidential, the device having to fly over insecure regions where a French astronaut would be a golden hostage for a jihadist group or a Russian Wagner militia. In total, the crew of three pilots and two mechanics count on 15 hours of flight in 4 to 6 days depending on weather conditions. Storm fronts to cross, sandstorms reducing visibility are some of the difficulties encountered during a trip where there is not an airfield every 50 kilometers to divert as in France. “I chose to get involved, that is to say to be on the ground alongside Aviation sans frontières, not just to give my name, because that corresponds to my DNA as a pilot trained at Air France. », explains the astronaut.
Engineer out of Supaéro, he had been selected during the selection of cadet pilots of Air France. The national company had created this sector recruiting “bacs + 2” with little or no experience in aviation. This is how Thomas Pesquet found himself for three years in Merville (Nord) at the Amaury de La Grange pilot school. He came out as co-pilot of the Airbus A320, an activity he continues when his job as an astronaut at the European Space Agency (ESA) gives him time. His current job is to select future European astronauts. 21,000 files were received, reduced to 400 currently, of which only 4 or 5 profiles should be retained. “It reminds me of my selection at Air France, then that of the ESA, but I am on the other side of the table, he explains. We are looking for pilot profiles who must also have characters close to those of the special forces or submariners. »
For his mission at ASF, a return to Merville, “back to square one”, where he found former instructors, was necessary. Whatever the experience acquired, a pilot who flies on a new machine for him must undergo training. Merville is a Cessna approved center. Pesquet thus followed the theoretical and practical type rating of four hours of flight with a test at the end. The regulations enacted by the UN, more restrictive than those of international and European civil aviation, impose 50 hours for a co-pilot and 200 hours for a captain, given the complexity of humanitarian missions in Africa. To transport caregivers, medicines, bring back the wounded to the hospital, the bush plane makes it possible to overcome the tracks rutted or cut by bandits who hold passengers to ransom. Also, the flights, rarely very long, save days in the car or a week in a canoe.
The NGO of NGOs
“Aviation sans frontières is the NGO of NGOs”, summarizes its president, Gérard Feldzer, who quantifies the logistical support provided by the association of volunteers at 40,000 flight hours and 8 million kilometers in 42 years, sometimes under extreme aeronautical or medical conditions. During the Ebola epidemic, one of ASF’s Cessnas, operating in Guinea-Conakry, had been equipped with a stretcher contained in a sealed bubble to evacuate a contagious patient, without risk for the crew and the nursing staff. ASF operates flights mainly at the request of the UN. In 2021, Aviation Sans Frontières pilots transported 5,636 passengers (medical teams, patients and association staff) and 27 tonnes of humanitarian emergency relief.
Help Aviation sans frontières by flying in a simulator
Flight Simulator, the computer benchmark for flight simulators, offers a version with four Aviation sans frontières missions. The amount of these paid add-ons (16 euros) published by orbx is entirely donated to ASF, which is seeking 1.5 million euros to repay the loan that made it possible to acquire the new Cessna.
The missions, scheduled over four different days, use the Cessna Grand Caravan 208 in the colors of Aviation sans Frontières. Four African airports have been improved or created (if not present in the base FS2020 version). Changes in meteorological conditions are simulated during missions as well as incidents leading the pilot to make decisions.