Blog - ECHO in the field

The Captain who will land in war zones

Captain Mungai, left, and his first officer after completing a round-trip to the insecure northern-eastern Kenya.

Captain Mungai, left, and his first officer after completing a round-trip to the insecure northern-eastern Kenya.

05/07/2013 – Security situation in north-eastern Kenya has deteriorated steadily since the Kenyan army entered Somalia almost two years ago. Armed groups have launched sporadic attacks, mostly targeting government officials and security forces, with unarmed civilians often being caught up in the fight.

In the Dadaab camp where close to a half a million of refugees – most of them from Somalia – depend on humanitarian assistance, aid work has been severely slowed down because of security concerns. Within the camp, criminality is widespread and on the main trunk road from Garissa to Dadaab, banditry attacks are frequent.

Road travel in the areas of Kenya close to the Somali border is risky. Safe passage of humanitarian supplies and trained workers are limited and deliveries often suffer considerable delays.

Lack of independent, quick and safe access to humanitarian crises is very common in many parts of Africa and the world.

Humanitarian flights

Captain Njuguna Mungai took to the skies in 1979 and for the last 15 years, he has flown for humanitarian services. We meet him on his return from Takaba, Mandera, Moyale, Wajir; all in the volatile parts of north-eastern Kenya.

“We have covered a round-trip of 1 825 kilometres. We transported 18 humanitarian workers from Nairobi and returned with 33 from the various stops,” says the soft-spoken Captain.

Poor roads that are often impassable during rainy seasons and bad security situation have forced humanitarian organisations to resort to air transport.

In Africa, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO operates a humanitarian air service called ECHO Flight in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These flights are reserved for humanitarian workers and supplies and are free of charge. Last year, the operating costs for ECHO flight in Kenya and DRC come to €10.4 million. The service transported over 19 000 passengers and 350 tonnes of cargo.

“The European Commission is keen to ensure that humanitarian staff and supplies reach people in areas that are often not accessible via any other mode of transport. For instance, displaced people in remote villages in Congo, or refugees inside South Sudan,” says Philippe Adapoe, the ECHO Flight coordinator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Apart from running its own fleet in insecure zones, ECHO supports other not-for-profit air operators with some charging a fee to partly recover the cost. In 2012, almost €18 million went to support the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), which operates in Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali and Central African Republic. The Commission also funds Aviation Sans Frontières (ASF) in Chad, and Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Afghanistan.

In 2012, the European Commission funded humanitarian aid services with over €33 million. But the need for more humanitarian flights to more destinations still persists, especially with new emergencies arising on top of the protracted crises.


Airstrips in rural parts of Africa are often in a state of disrepair. Punctures are common on landing. In many instances, humanitarian agencies run small planes with short-field capability which can land and take-off safely on short dirt runways.

However, even the small aircrafts are sometimes unable to land. In South Sudan for instance, unpaved airstrips can get flooded when it rains, sometimes for as long as six months in a year. In the heavily forested rural DRC, winged aircrafts are not ideal since the terrain makes it difficult to establish airstrips. Here, humanitarian organisations rely on helicopters. ECHO Flight, which has three planes in eastern DRC and one in Kenya, has recently added a helicopter to its fleet.

This helicopter is helping agencies to reach such places as Walikale, west of Goma, in eastern DRC, where there is no airstrip and the journey by car would take at least four days on extremely bad and unsafe roads.

Captain Mungai reminisces over the changing humanitarian air services. “In the 90s, we mainly flew cargo planes, because then, we needed to deliver supplies such as food and medicines. Today, the service is fashioned for transporting less cargo and more humanitarian workers.”

According to the Captain, medical evacuations have also changed. “We evacuated local populations for medical reasons. Now, aid agencies have built hospitals, bringing health services closer to the population.”

Air rescues

Flying for humanitarian agencies has taken Captain Mungai to numerous conflict-affected countries in Africa. Northern Kenya pales in all comparison. The Captain has flown to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Somalia, Niger, and Central Africa Republic, at the height of crises.

Pilots in the emergency aid sector often fly into conflict zones to get aid workers out of harms way or evacuate injured personnel.  However, they risk being shot down.

Captain Mungai’s latest rescue mission was in Bangui, Central African Republic, when the city fell to the Seleka movement at the end of March. This was a night flight; the circumstances demanded a stealthy approach. “We flew in with all lights off, until when very close to the runway, because while the airport was secure, the surrounding zones were not,” he says.

During this mission, Captain Mungai evacuated aid workers, including European Commission staff, to the safety of neighbouring Kinshasa.

At the height of the second civil war in Sudan (then one country) in the early 1990s, Captain Mungai was flying for the World Food Programme (WFP). “I conducted many rescues during the war…passengers would jump on board with the engines still running as is the ‘normal’ procedure,” he says.

Hope for a stable future

“As a pilot, I am extremely aware of human suffering, especially because I go to different crises spots regularly,” says Captain Mungai.

Humanitarian air services all over the world, much like the delivery of emergency aid, operate on the basic premise of neutrality, without taking sides. The services exist to serve humanity in need, something that inspires Captain Mungai.

The Captain says he is ‘addicted’ to flying in and out of these desolate and god-forsaken places. His job will not take him to the shopping or fashion capitals of the world, but he loves it nevertheless.

By Martin Karimi
Regional Information Assistant in Nairobi, Kenya

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