Ukraine Air Rescue Partners with SAFER Ukraine

By John Bone

September 2, 2022

It’s mid-day August 18th, 2022 when Kay Wolf of Ukraine Air Rescue receives an email from
Stefan Vogler of Evangelische Stadtmission Freiburg e.V. An NGO located in Freiburg,
Germany. Stefan inquired about the possibility of Ukraine Air Rescue flying cancer patients for
Safer Ukraine. SAFER Ukraine is a humanitarian effort launched following the Russian invasion
to provide safe passage for childhood cancer patients and their families out of Ukraine. The
organization, established by St Jude Global and several international partners, also offers
continued to care for refugee patients.

On August 26, 2022, Dr. Alexandra Mueller, Medical Director for SAFER Ukraine, set up a
Zoom call with Kay Wolf of Ukraine Air Rescue to introduce the two organizations. During the
call, Dr. Mueller inquired about the possibility of flying a five-year-old Ukrainian refugee girl
undergoing cancer treatment in Lodz, Poland. She needed to be moved, along with her mother,
to the University Hospital in Essen, Germany, for specialized treatment. The cancer treatment
affects her immune system; therefore, traveling on a commercial airline, train, bus, etc., is not
recommended. Safer Ukraine and Ukraine Air Rescue do not know each other; they have no
process interfaces, working agreements, or previous contact.

Kay checks his lists of over 300 volunteer pilots to see who might be available and
conveniently located to fly the request. The request is forwarded to John Bone, an American
pilot who has flown his Cirrus SR22 from Florida to Germany to volunteer with Ukraine Air
Rescue. John typically flies urgently needed medical supplies to the Poland-Ukraine border
and returns with refugees or Ukraine military members in need of medical care. He is currently
on standby for any flight requests. John checks the weather; a cold front is moving across
Germany and Poland, and the forecasts suggest conditions will clear by Monday, August 29.
Late on Friday, arrangements are made to fly into the Lodz, Poland airport the following
Monday. Because it’s a humanitarian flight, the airport has agreed to waive the customary
airport fees. With the necessary clearances and flight plans filed, the Cirrus SR22 departs from
the Bonn-Hangelar airport for Lodz, Poland, at 0900, August 29.

The aircraft lands at Lodz, refuels, boards the young girl and her mother, and is airborne again
in less than one hour. Flight time from Lodz to Essen is 3 hours 15 minutes, the flight lands at
Essen, Germany, at 4 pm. A hospital van is waiting at the Essen airport; they arrive at the
hospital, are checked in, and are settled in one of the cancer care apartments before 5 pm. The
mission is completed three days after the request.

Ukraine Air Rescue (UAR) does not charge for this flight. The organization is funded through
donations and pilots who volunteer their services and their planes. Fuel for this flight is also
paid for through UAR donations. From March 1, 2022, through September 1, 2022, UAR has
operated over 70 flights, carrying over 37,000 lbs of medical supplies, 235 Ukraine Army Medic
Backpacks, and over 59 passengers in need of medical care.

SAFER Ukraine and Ukraine Air Rescue are currently planning many future flights.

References:

https://global.stjude.org/en-us/saferukraine.html

https://www.ukraine-air-rescue.de

Small Planes, Big Missions

Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, two cybersecurity experts from Germany, Kay Wolf, founder and CEO of E2 Security, and Stefan Sahling of the German software giant SAP, set out to send supplies and aid to their fellow workers and friends in Ukraine. Given the chaos and bureaucracy of getting supplies across borders, the two devised a plan to fly the cargo in small planes. Their Ukrainian contacts would organize the ground transfer from Poland into Ukraine. Stefan, a pilot for over 15 years, and Kay, an aviation enthusiast, enlisted their friends who either had planes or access to them through flying clubs.

John Bone with medic packs

The payload of a Cirrus might not match a C-5, but each backpack is precious.

Ukraine Air Rescue (UAR) came to life in just a few days. Within six months, UAR had grown to 313 volunteer pilots worldwide. The pilots range from retired or current airline and military pilots, flight instructors, professional pilots, an EASA safety inspector, and many VFR private pilots. The mix of participating airplanes ranges from the French-built Robin to Pilatus PC-12s and just about everything in between.

I heard about UAR through a friend of mine in Kyiv, Ukraine. He had evacuated his home in the heavily bombed area of Irpin with his wife, cat, and several elderly neighbors. After several days in the woods, they joined up with other refugees and ended up in the Czech Republic. Along the way, a UAR flight delivered supplies to them. A few weeks later, I flew from Florida to Germany via the North Atlantic route in my Cirrus SR22, the first US pilot to join the UAR forces.

Once in Germany, I found a well-organized, well-funded, and friendly group of general aviation pilots. The mission: fly critically needed medical supplies to the Poland-Ukraine border and return with refugees needing medical care. Initially, I was based at Mainz-Finton (EDFZ) just outside of Frankfurt for 30 days and then at Bonn-Hangelar (EDKB) for another 30 days. The locations are determined by the needs of various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that UAR supports.

Flights are generally planned for Wednesdays and Saturdays or on request. Mandatory briefings are held two days before the flight and again the day before each flight. Weather, load planning, flight plans, required approvals, return passengers, and NOTAMs are all briefed thoroughly.

John Bone flying UAR

Fill it to the top!

Cargo is delivered numbered, and weighed, and a detailed manifest is prepared. All aircraft are required to operate within their required weight and balance limits. Depending on the airports used, the one-way distance from most German airports to the Poland-Ukraine border airports is approximately 550 nm. In the Cirrus SR22, this is a 7-hour round trip flight and a 10-hour or more duty day. Other aircraft may take longer. Weather, mechanicals, and duty time sometimes require an overnight at the border airport. Ukraine airspace remains closed, and all flights operate within safe airspace and airports at all times.

Returning with the passengers can be an emotional experience. Arrangements are made through the NGOs for passengers to return to Germany on the flights. Passengers might be Ukrainian refugees or military, all needing medical care. Missing hands, arms, and legs are frequent. Also frequent are stories of atrocities committed by Russians. Email addresses and Facebook pages are all exchanged. New friends are made, and hospital visits might follow to check on them. At the end of the 10 to 12-hour day, you are drained.

UAR has become the air-link for several NGOs. There are a number of them supplying aid to Ukraine. These NGOs move supplies via rail, truck, and sprinter vans, but when it comes to time-sensitive, critically needed medical supplies, a quick and reliable way to move them is through UAR. Flights are flown to airports in Poland that are near the Ukraine border. After landing, volunteer drivers with credentials to cross the border drive the supplies directly to their destination. It might be a hospital, a clinic, or locations along the front. From leaving the NGO warehouse to arrival at the Ukraine destination is one day.

Volunteer pilots also volunteer their planes. You might ask, “is there not a better way to move these supplies than small planes?” The answer is probably yes but at what cost? On a typical UAR mission, there might be anywhere from three to six planes leaving from two or three different airports supporting two or three NGOs, with 2,000 to 3,000 lbs. or more of medical supplies. All flights are headed to the same destination.

Soldier

Flying people out for medical treatment or prosthetics is as important as flying supplies in.

The volunteer pilots provide their planes and sometimes, even pay their own fuel costs. Other times there are donations available for the fuel. The end cost of the flight transportation to the NGO, and ultimately to the end user, is zero. Since most NGOs operate through donations, the cost of the goods delivered to the user is also zero. It is so efficient that during the two months I volunteered, we quickly moved over 150 Ukraine Army Medic Backpacks. The contents of each backpack cost $1,000. The contents are either donated by hospitals, drug companies, or paid for through donations. The backpacks are delivered to locations along the front at no cost to the Army. Try running the same program through the Pentagon.

While there are several humanitarian flight organizations worldwide, Ukraine Air Rescue is likely the largest group of general aviation pilots ever assembled for a single cause. Here, general aviation pilots, many of whom are VFR private pilots, have bound together and are using their planes in a manner that significantly contributes to the Ukraine effort. In the first six months of operation, the group had flown 65 flights, carried 52 passengers needing medical care, hauled over 37,000 lbs. of medical supplies, and delivered over 150 medic backpacks.

What does the future hold? As the flight demand grows, so does the network of pilots and planes. Most of the Ukrainian airports have been destroyed, but pilots within Ukraine are already preparing serviceable grass runways in anticipation of the war ending and the airspace opening. When it does open, there is no doubt that Ukraine Air Rescue will be some of the first planes to deliver aid into Ukraine.

The man, John Bone

John Bone could have had a good time in his cottage in the 2,000-person nest of Apalachicola, Florida, and everyone would have understood that. Enjoy the sun and one of the most beautiful beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, give a few flying lessons every now and then, and otherwise enjoy your well-deserved retirement. But John Bone is not a normal 71-year-old, the American has already flown around the world twice in his beloved Cirrus SR22 light aircraft.

That’s why he’s doing what he probably has to do when he hears about the Air Rescue Ukraine initiative in distant Germany. After all, who would be better suited than him to fly relief supplies to Mielec in Poland, 60 kilometers from the border with Ukraine, in wind and weather? “So I got on my plane, first to Canada, over to Greenland, from there to Iceland and Scotland. After five days I was in Germany and volunteered for two months, in July and August.”

Bone, a wiry man with a full beard, talks about his trip to Germany as if it were child’s play, probably because he’s spent most of his life above the clouds. He sat in the cockpit as a teenager, worked for Delta Airlines as a pilot for 36 years, and in the end he was able to fly his home route Atlanta-Frankfurt almost in his sleep. The flags of the 35 states that globetrotter Bone has already visited are stuck to the rear of his machine.

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