Flying in the face of danger

Mogadishu, Somalia

Having entered Somali airspace, aircraft dip to sea level; disembarking at Mogadishu (Photograph: Andrew Renneisen)

The passengers waiting to board at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport include a bunch of UN staffers, a couple of British diplomats and security contractors spottable by their shaved heads and tactical backpacks. The US ambassador to Somalia is also in the line, as are aid workers from a host of charities that are busy trying to alleviate Somalia’s latest drought. They’re all waiting for the morning flight to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, operated by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). This three-times-a-week service is a lifeline to one of the world’s most dangerous cities. With 70 aircraft in 17 countries and an operating budget of €205m this year, UNHAS is the biggest airline you’ve never heard of, and its rugged fleet ferries aid workers in and out of humanitarian crises all over the world.

South Sudan, where a nearly-four-year civil war has caused famine and the uprooting of a third of the population, is currently UNHAS’s biggest operation. But Somalia, too, is significant and demanding. “We’re moving 24,000 passengers a year in Somalia,” says Nigel Sanders, UNHAS’s chief air transport officer for the country, which faces an al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgency, droughts and a lack of infrastructure after decades of upheaval. “We’re like a small airline so we’re very passenger orientated, or as much as we can be in this very basic environment.” And while there may be no business class, UNHAS does have some trappings of a regular airline: a fleet of aircraft of varying-sizes and a list of destinations, with bureaucratic scheduling and paper tickets.

The carrier began in 1989 as Operation Lifeline Sudan, a UN-led effort to keep the people of what was then southern Sudan alive during a civil war. Using the tiny Kenyan town of Lokichoggio as its base to fly in food and medicine, it was a wild time when ageing aircraft were being flown into perilous zones by daredevil pilots.

“It was fun,” says Captain Maurice Ngugi in the cockpit of the 76-seater Bombardier Q400, en route to Somalia. The 57-year-old pilot previously flew ageing, bone-shaking De Havilland Buffaloes into Sudan for the UN. “If you got stuck in Bahr el-Ghazal you’d have to spend a few nights out there in the middle of a war. There was a lot of improvising and not a lot of ground support.”

Despite having a more up-to-date fleet and strictly enforced safety standards today, UNHAS still attracts pilots with a taste for adventure. After all, these tend to be dangerous routes and there’s rarely an international- standard hotel waiting at the other end.

After 40 minutes, Ngugi’s turboprop plane, at a cruising altitude of 23,000 feet, enters Somali airspace and the end of radar coverage. “Once out of Nairobi airspace we’ve got to be very vigilant,” says Salim Kaka, the 30-year-old co-pilot scanning the clouds for under-the-radar aircraft in these increasingly busy skies.

We fly in low over the Indian Ocean – a security precaution against anyone who might shoot at the aircraft – then bank sharply, skimming above the breakers before landing at Mogadishu airport. This is a transport hub for smaller UNHAS planes that operate throughout the country. Travel by road remains treacherous in Somalia, where al-Qaeda-affiliated militants still control much of the countryside between towns. UNHAS’s multi-stop service therefore acts as a hop-on, hop-off air bus for aid workers.

“Sometimes we fly with just one passenger,” says South African pilot Edward Herbst, finishing his last cigarette on the tarmac before flying the afternoon route between Mogadishu, Baidoa and Doolow in an 18-seat Dornier 228. We come aboard and, after some improvisation by the crew with a troublesome propeller, the plane roars to life and we’re off.

Presley Kirigha, the Dornier’s mustachioed 47-year-old engineer, has aviator glasses on his shaved head and a dollar packet of Sportsman cigarettes in his shirt pocket. He’s on board each round trip in case something goes wrong – this time he had to hand-crank the propeller to life. “Here I just have to get it done even if it’s not my thing,” says the engineer. “This is not like a commercial airline – it’s much more challenging.”

These small planes don’t barge through the sky so much as skitter and roll. At one point, high over central Somalia, the land below marbled with swirls of ochre, brown and green, the Dornier runs into ragged grey clouds. Despite the turbulence the passengers – mostly aid workers and seemingly all seasoned flyers – doze on.

Sahr Kemoh, a WASH specialist (water, sanitation and hygiene) for the UN children’s agency Unicef is on his way to dust-blown border town Doolow for a few days. “It would be impossible to work here without UNHAS,” he says. Nowadays some commercial flights do operate to far-flung destinations in Somalia but aid agencies and the UN don’t trust their safety record and won’t allow their staff to fly with them, making UNHAS essential.

The Dornier lands on Doolow’s dirt runway. The terminal is a pair of wood-and-tin shelters with a ragged Somali flag flapping in the hot wind. Beyond them is the first of the 58 camps where 41,000 people uprooted by drought live huddled in stick-and-rag igloo-like structures.

“The service is very basic,” says Vijender Singh, operations director for the Danish Refugee Council charity as he waits for his luggage to be brought to the gravel. “But what do you expect?”