The Human(-itarian) Side of 2021’s AirVenture


The EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 presented the theme of humanitarian-based aviation in a big way. There were a surprising number of aircraft and organizations present at the July event. The aircraft types ranged from heavy jet transports to a small Robinson R44 helicopter, with many more in the middle of the pack. Organizations’ operating areas contrasted from worldwide aid to localized operations. Some of the people present were missionary pilots, others were disaster relief specialists, and still others were medical and logistics professionals.

Two weeks prior to AirVenture, the EAA released a media advisory which, in part, stated:
July 8, 2021 – EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is hosting a special attraction this year that will highlight humanitarian aircraft that focus on providing medical and relief assistance to those in need around the world.
These aircraft and organizations are among those that will be part of a salute to humanitarian aviation during the 68th edition of EAA’s annual fly-in convention, which runs July 26-August 1 at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh:
• Orbis Flying Eye Hospital: This MD-10 aircraft travels around the world to provide eye care, such as cataract surgery and glaucoma treatment, to local hospitals in countries that have limited or nonexistent access.
• Samaritan’s Purse DC-8: The flagship airplane of the organization delivers tons of food, medicine, and supplies to aid victims of war, natural disasters, and other emergencies.
• UPS 747-8F: This aircraft played a leading role in the delivery of over 400 million COVID-19 vaccines and tons of personal protective equipment (PPE) used to fight the pandemic in the U.S.
• Cessna 208 Caravan: The Remote Area Medical organization’s aircraft has three pop-up medical clinics in it, which includes medical, dental, and vision to assist in disaster situations.
• Air Force C-17: This aircraft has Negatively Pressurized CONEX (NPC), which filters contaminated air with clean air to prevent the spread of disease and contamination. This unit was used in recent COVID pandemic relief missions.
“EAA AirVenture has brought together a unique group of airplanes that have special roles within the humanitarian sector, with many of these aircraft playing a significant role in pandemic relief operations,” said Rick Larsen, EAA’s vice president of communities and member programming, who coordinates AirVenture features and attractions. “Our activities this year showcase the enormous, but often unsung, charitable work that happens because of aviation and the dedicated organizations that use it.”…

While it is hard to cover every skill and reason why these humanitarians do what they do, here’s an overview of part of what I saw during my three day visit to AirVenture.

The Heavy Humanitarians:

Largest aircraft on display was a United Parcel Service Boeing 747-8 freighter. Air freight has seen a noticeable increase since the worldwide COVID response, especially when there’s a need to transport large quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE). This and other UPS Boeings crisscross the world daily, even now expediting critical equipment and vaccines.

The Orbis MD-10-30 is a flying clinic able to serve groups of people who’d otherwise not have the specialized eye treatment and care that this organization offers. The airframe was once a Douglas DC-10-30 series jet, which was upgraded to the MD-10 levels with a new cockpit. FedEx donated the jet to Orbis for its use in 2011. Watch for an upcoming article here about this jet and organization from Scott Jankowski soon!

The Samaritan’s Purse DC-8-72 Combi is the only one of its type in the world still airworthy. The jet can seat 30 passengers in the rear of the fuselage, and carry freight in its spacious cargo area in between the cockpit and passenger seats. The jet is often the first big transport to arrive at the scene of major disasters in hurricane and earthquake revenged regions. Recently, the Samaritan’s Purse DC-8 made multiple flights to Haiti with disaster relief supplies and personnel after the recent earthquake. Watch for an upcoming article from Scott Jankowski about this jet and organization soon, too!

The Boeing C-17A Globemaster III is assigned to the Air Force Reserve, operating from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It carried a NPC in it for display. The U.S. Air Force transports can normally carry 102 paratroopers or seated troops, and can be modified for aeromedical use with a mixed ambulatory capacity of up to 90 passengers assisted by a team of 5 flight nurses and medical technicians. Quite noteworthy was a recent Tweet – reportedly by the Air Mobility Command – that an evacuation flight out of Afghanistan carried 640 adults and 183 children in one trip.

The Airbus A-400M on display is also capable of medical evacuation flights. As Germany’s largest military airlifter, it can be set up as a critical care transport with up to 6 intensive care suites, administered by at least 7 specialists. The modular suites are fully equipped with supplies before loading, weighing up to 2.8 tons in total. It takes about 4 hours to set up an empty airframe as a medivac transport, according to an article in AirMed&Rescue magazine. There is room for more equipment after the suites are loaded too.

The Wisconsin Army National Guard displayed one of their Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawks, complete with a rescue hoist on the right side of the aircraft. Not only is the helicopter used for search and rescue on the state level, but others like it can carry a water bucket to fight wildfires. Two weeks after AirVenture, a pair of Black Hawks deployed to California, along with a dozen or so soldiers, to help fight the crippling fires in that state.

Smaller but Vitally Important for Missionary Aviation Operations:
Larger, single engine transports were displayed with a wide range of specialized equipment, including floats and cargo doors. These lighter aircraft usually fly the final legs of delivery and pick-ups in remote locals. Here are some views of the aviation organizations represented at AirVenture this year, which make up a large network of missionary and logistical providers.

I had the pleasure of talking to Mark Palm during AirVenture, the man behind Samaritan Aviation. Mark had one of the Cessna U206F Stationair floatplanes used in New Guinea on display on the big Boeing ramp, and later at the Seaplane Base. Here’s a media release about Samaritan Aviation:

“Papua New Guinea is the world’s third-largest island country, and it is among the most rural, with only 18% of its population living in urban areas. The villagers in the remote area of the East Sepik River often experience malaria, cholera, and other rampant diseases as well as additional medical scares such as injuries or pregnancy complications. Due to their only form of transportation being a dugout canoe and the hospital being miles and miles away, many villagers would succumb to their illnesses before receiving the medical care they needed.

In 2000, Mark Palm created Samaritan Aviation to help provide emergency medical evacuations, medical supply delivery, medical outreaches, and disaster relief 24/7 to people living in these remote villages in Papua New Guinea. Mark, a third-generation aviator, raised money for ten years to purchase the first seaplane that was used in the operation. To date, Samaritan Aviation has flown over 200,000 pounds of medical supplies to 40+ Aid Posts and Health Care Centers, flown over 1,500 patients to the hospital and have flown thousands of flights accident and incident free.”

While speaking to Mark, I learned that his grandfather and uncles flew in World War II. His father was a minister and he’s combined those two avocations within the organization. He bought his first plane 10 years after starting the organization, and when I asked him about the flying conditions in New Guinea, he explained that most of the time the pilots and crew are on their own, flying VFR. Water landings are a risk, as rainfall in far-away areas will change a river’s height and condition rapidly. The water is similar to root beer in color, and objects that are visible above the surface might be submerged just a few hours later… the trees, stumps and rocks are hard to spot. And airframe and powerplant assistance isn’t readily available either.

Cessna C-208 Caravans and Grand Caravans are rugged workhorses, both on and off floats. A few years ago, there was major concern that aviation fuel in remote regions was hard to find, but Jet-A/kerosene was more readily available. With a turboprop like the C-208, that issue isn’t as critical. The payload of around 3,000 pounds is quite useful too.

Remote Area Medical Inc. operates N833EB, a 1992 vintage Cessna 208. According to the organization, “Remote Area Medical (RAM) is a major nonprofit provider of free pop-up clinics. Our mission is to prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free, quality healthcare to those in need. We do this by delivering free dental, vision, and medical services to underserved and uninsured individuals. RAM’s Corps of more than 172,900 volunteers–licensed dental, vision, medical, and veterinary professionals–have treated more than 863,700 individuals delivering more than $174 million worth of free care.”

Mission Aviation Fellowship operates “forty seven light aircraft from fourteen bases in eight countries around the world.” Most are Cessna aircraft… from C-172 Skyhawk trainers to Cessna 206 and 207 Stationairs, to the big 208B Grand Caravans. Others include Kodiak 100 turboprops and a Pilatus PC-12. The organization supports scores of missionary organizations around the world (with bases in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean) by providing aviation support to charitable organizations in remote areas.

JAARS (The Jungle Aviation and Radio Service) operates a fleet of small aircraft that assist the organization with performing the logistics of their main mission – in their words : “JAARS is a multidisciplinary team of problem-solvers committed to the belief—and the vision—that people’s lives and communities are transformed as they experience God’s Word in their own language.” They offer flight training, and are found all over the world… on five continents.

Another area that I found interesting was available technical and college level education assistance and programs for the missionary aviation field. Moody Aviation provides the opportunity for “evangelical pilots and mechanics” to earn a degree in aviation and Bible studies in based in Spokane, Washington. Longview, Texas-based LeTourneau University also has a missionary pilot program, training pilots for the rigors of missionary flying into remote regions around the world. SOAR, located in Bolivar Missouri, assists with the completion of maintenance and flight programs through apprentice programs, so students can enter the missionary aviation field with little or no debt.

Another interesting area of missionary and humanitarian flight was the maintenance needed for the aircraft used in the flying. Alaska’s MARK – the Missionary Aviation Repair Center –offers maintenance and modifications to the aircraft used in Alaska for missionary work, and offers some larger aircraft for missionary work where smaller aircraft won’t do.

MMS Aviation is another organization which repairs and modifies missionary aircraft, and offers an apprentice program for mechanics who’ll keep these hard working aircraft in the air safely.

I spoke a lot with people connected to missionary aviation, with many centered around aircraft becoming their time machines, slicing hours or days off of journeys. I wish I could mention them all! Ethnos Aviation operates Robinson R44 and R66 helicopters (among many types of fixed wing and helos) in New Guinea, the Phillipines and Indonesia.

Medivac flights are part of the missionary experience too, and stories of successful and unfortunately unsuccessful emergency flights were shared, highlighting another part of the big picture. I spoke with college students gearing up for careers in aviation and heeding the call for missionary work – “spreading the Word” too.

In conclusion, the EAA’s addition of “Humanitarian” aviation this year opened a whole new side of aviation to me, and it was a larger story than I expected. Most of the organizations I’ve talked about here are 501C.3 organizations which are funded primarily through donations – please think about assisting any or all of them!

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 35 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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