Nairobi may be the base for most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) charities and intergovernmental aid agencies, but many look to charter operators in Johannesburg Lanseria for their aviation needs. These bodies all need contract flights to help them deliver humanitarian aid and personnel around Africa's war zones and disaster areas.

Founded in 1988, Rossair's contracts division is one of the largest, with about 24 aircraft flying around the continent as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only around 25% of its contracts are on behalf of commercial companies while the rest are for humanitarian aid organisations.

The contracting business in South Africa grew in the 1990s as part of a move towards professionalism.

Many NGOs now perform rigorous safety audits on aircraft they use. Rossair often uses local maintenance centres at their various bases of operations which give transferable skills to engineers in remote locations.

Lanseria vies with the Kenyan capital as the major supplier of contract flights. Rossair employs more than 110 pilots in South Africa and a further 15 through its Kenyan subsidiary. Some are recently qualified holders of commercial pilot's licences eager to earn hours before applying to airlines - Rossair has an arrangement with South African Airways to take its cadets. The flying conditions they meet in two years of humanitarian flying are more challenging than they will encounter for the rest of their careers, says Ian du Rand, managing director of Rossair Contracts.

Like many other contract operators, Rossair specialises in personnel transport, carrying NGO workers, wounded combatants and sometimes senior dignitaries. This means it has to find airstrips on which to land. NGO staff on the ground will identify a landing strip, or in worst-case scenarios use local labour to clear the surrounding bush and supply co-ordinates. Jet A1 fuel will then be flown in and spares will be kept at a forward base. A functioning airfield can be established within three weeks, says du Rand.

Most airfields are located using GPS navigation and approached only with visual flight rules. Daylight-only operations are flown in support of VFR as well as to reduce the perception that night flights might be under- cover operations, attracting subsequent hostile action. The NGOs prov- ide daily briefings to pilots on the political situation on the ground, essential in war zones. "Our aircraft operate under the charity's markings and their arrival is announced to both sides, but our pilots still do go-arounds on every approach and wait for a green light to land from the NGO ground team before landing," says du Rand.

Most flights are trouble -free, although there have been serious mishaps. Pilots feed back intelligence on airfield state and condition to the NGOs, and standard operating procedures are updated.

In areas of hostility, for example, pilots perform steep spiral approaches, which can alarm passengers, while in any war-torn country airfields can change hands from one day to the next. "Our flights have to be transparent and all parties need to agree for us to land, not just one side or the other," du Rand says.

For these conditions, operators have to use rugged aircraft. Many contract operators, such as Balmoral and Federal in Durban and King Air Services in Lanseria, use Cessna Caravans and Beech 200s, but Rossair favours the 1900C/D. The company also operates the de Havilland Twin Otter and turbine DC-3, and has developed and certificated a light cargo lining for the ATR 42-300.

In-flight hospitality usually extends only as far as a cooler box, although the company can use a VIP-configured BAe 125 for transporting dignitaries, says du Rand. Aircraft sometimes have to be modified with high-flotation landing gear wheels to stop the aircraft from sinking in mud.

Source: Flight International