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“And I said, I can do more to help”

by Hendrik Thielemann

Almost one billion people worldwide suffer from hunger. The ­humanitarians of the World Food Programme are doing everything they can to reduce that number. With a fleet of around 100 aircraft, the WFP provides help when land and sea routes are blocked.

“Aircraft are not only made for commercial and military purposes. Aircraft are also made for humanitarian purposes. They can help save lives.” The man who says this knows what he is talking about: Samir ­Sajet has been working for the World Food Programme (WFP) for almost 20 years. The WFP is one of the most ­important institutions of the United ­Nations in the fight against global hunger. It supports around 80 million people in some 80 countries every year.

For example, in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, almost 100,000 people lived under siege for ­several years. At the beginning of 2015, the Islamic State group started to besiege parts of the city which were ­controlled by Syrian government troops. A state of emergency quickly erupted. Help finally came from the air when, in February 2016, the WFP started to regularly drop food and relief supplies from the air over Deir ez-Zor. By the time the siege ended in September 2017, WFP aircraft had dropped more than 6,500 tons of food and supplies over the course of 309 airdrop missions.

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Captain Samir Sajet is the WFP’s Aviation Regional Safety Officer and the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Technical Officer, Efficiency and Operations. (Photo: WFP)

“The Syria airdrops were a great success. We saved the lives of thousands of people,” Samir recalls. Samir is WFP’s Regional Aviation Safety Officer, responsible for the safety of the organization’s airborne operations in Asia and Northern Africa. Although the WFP transports most of its aid by land and sea, using more than 30 ships and 5,000 trucks, the more severe the crisis, the more important air transport becomes.

100 Emergency response aircraft

“Most of our work is emergency ­response,” says Samir. “In order to ­respond fast we have about 100 aircraft.” During severe crises, such as the major tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 or the ­earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the number of aircraft used can double or even triple during these short periods.


All aircraft used by the WFP are leased, and there is a wide range of aircraft types and operators. The fleet is a mix of jets, turboprop aircraft and helicopters: ­Embraer 135 and 145, Bombardier Dash 8, Beechcraft 1900, Let L-410 Turbojet, Dornier 228 and 328, Cessna 208 ­Caravan, IL-76, Mi-8, Bell 412 and 212 and the CRJ-200. Which aircraft is selected for which mission depends on the ­operating conditions, the operator and availability. If the population has to be evacuated for security reasons, large ­passenger planes are also used.


The WFP usually charters the aircraft on a wet lease arrangement or what is known as an AMCI (Aircraft Crew Maintenance Insurance) basis, that is, the operator ­provides the aircraft and crew and is also responsible for the maintenance of the ­aircraft and the insurance for the missions.


“My main role as Aviation Safety Officer is to make sure that operators meet our requirements,” explains Samir. And these requirements are high, because the ­missions in crisis areas are demanding. “We want to do the job and we want to do it safely”, says Samir. That is why he checks every operator according to a ­number of criteria, ranging from organizational structure and finances to technical aspects and the training of pilots and crew. The latter is particularly important for Samir: “We need experienced pilots and crews to carry out the missions safely.”


“Another important task for Samir is field risk evaluation. The safety officer assesses the situation and performance of the crews on site and tries to find solutions for problems that arise during the missions. “Together with the security staff, we make sure that a flight is as secure as possible,” Samir explains.

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Children in the Syrian refugee camp of Era. (Photo: WFP / Hussam Al Saleh)

Keeping risks as low as possible

This is not an easy task because the ­conditions are often difficult and in remote ­regions there is often a lack of infra­structure. The runways are unpaved and there are often no ground crews at the landing sites. Sometimes there is not even a windsock. Fire protection and refueling facilities are also often lacking. Moreover, in conflict regions, there is frequently the risk of attacks on emergency forces and aircraft – in the air and on the ground.


In many cases, however, another challenge outweighs the risks that occur during the missions: the financing of WFP operations. “Often our hands are tied. And we have to minimize or even cancel an operation. Not because the people do not need us. Not because they are not hungry any more. Not because they are safe. And not because the operations are too risky. Simply because we do not have the money.”


The WFP is mainly financed by voluntary contributions from donor countries, which usually finance specific programs, as well as donations from companies and ­private individuals. In 2018, these ­contributions totaled almost 7.5 billion US dollars, and yet, “the gap is huge,” says Samir, ­because almost one billion people in the world still go hungry.


Despite this enormous scale, Samir ­believes that many people are unaware of the problem: “If you don’t see it, you don’t feel it,” he says. And he does not exclude himself from this assessment. When he joined the WFP in 2001, he also had no idea what work awaited him. His first humanitarian mission led Samir to Guinea in West Africa. “After that, I realized what type of job I was doing. And I said, I can do more to help.”.

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WFP providing air transport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kananga, Kasai-Central. (Photo: WFP / Griff Tapper)

Key to success: reliable aircraft and availability when you need it

Whether carrying people or cargo, in addition to having an experienced crew and well-trained ground personnel, having a robust aircraft and ­regular maintenance is a key factor for mission success. World Food ­Programme Aviation Safety Officer Captain Samir Sajet explains: “The WFP’s air operations facilitate access supporting humanitarian interventions in response to natural or man-made crises in some of the most remote and hostile ­locations on the planet. As the WFP aviation operation can mean the fine line between life and death, being emergency-ready is the main element of success, especially by having a list of qualified air operators with aircraft that are well maintained and airworthy.”

Promoting aviation safety

“Fighting hunger is the principal concern of WFP. However, in many places where WFP staff are deployed, they also make an active contribution to flight safety. Samir Sajet and his team, for example, provide on-site training for ground staff. In addition, the WFP organizes regular meetings at various locations around the world to further improve the cooperation of operators with civil aviation authorities and other institutions. As well as improving flight safety, these measures directly help those involved in the affected regions. “By investing in the education of local people, we improve the infrastructure in the country,” Samir Sajet explains.


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A refugee girl from Helmand Province in Afghanistan carries a WFP grain sack. (Photo: alamy)

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