After disaster: the role of business aviation in humanitarian relief

Inspiration GP /

We’re living in a time when we are no strangers to humanitarian disasters. What with an ongoing global health crisis and increasing environmental concerns (such as wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and the possibility that melting permafrost in Siberia could unleash viruses previously unknown to humanity) coupled with the worsening conflict in countries like Afghanistan and Syria, it is undeniable that the world is facing unprecedented challenges.

As we are confronted with images of unimaginable suffering across the globe, it is easy to see why our collective anxiety is at an all-time high. However, it is also important to remember that there are individuals and organizations committed to providing support, aid, and assistance. Nowhere does this feel more prominent than the business aviation industry, where multiple non-profits, corporate entities and individuals are regularly providing emergency and humanitarian services to people in need. After all, privately-owned aircrafts are perfect for disaster relief missions.

So, why is that? In a recent interview with American aerospace company, Textron Aviation, Brad Pierce, the president of Restaurant Equipment World (and a frequent volunteer with AEROBridge, a non-profit established in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that coordinates donated aircraft to provide immediate response to disaster), revealed the reason his company uses business aviation. He stated that “the ability to quickly get closer to your destination without the delays or restrictions of commercial air – are some of the main reasons privately-owned aircraft are perfect for disaster relief”.

In short, business aviation is particularly well-placed to lend a helping hand when disaster strikes.

We are often privy to news about large carriers lending services and fleet during times of need. Most recently, the US enlisted the help of six commercial airlines, which included United Airlines, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL), and Delta Air, to help transport people who were evacuated from Afghanistan from their temporary locations.

In comparison, stories about business aircraft (so, those considered to be ‘general aviation’ aircraft used for a business purpose, including single-pilot airplanes, turbine aircraft that fly both nationally and internationally, and helicopters) providing aid, are less widely shared in mainstream media. But, owing to the size, accessibility and availability of aircraft, the business aviation sector has often operated at the forefront of relief missions as well as providing continued support and transport to communities during times of crisis.


The business aviation community, which consists of mostly small to mid-size businesses and other entities including non-profit organizations, has played a significant role in providing support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, the sector responded to the crisis by ferrying medical teams and assisting in the transportation of medical supplies, including much-needed Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). As restrictions tightened, business aviation professionals also worked to fly stranded people back to their home countries.

Air Charter Services, which brokers aircraft charters, was called upon across its division during the pandemic for a range of services. The group’s cargo division has been working with several governments during the pandemic, starting with arranging flights to bring PPE from Asia and Europe.

“PPE changed into test kits and vaccines. That is still ongoing and will be for some time,” Andy Christie, Group Private Jets Director at ACS tells AeroTime.

The company also helped to arrange transport for humanitarian equipment, such as tents, water purification kits, blankets after the recent earthquake in Haiti. It also provided services for first responders and teams to come in and assess the damage, crucial given that many regular transport services were out of action during the pandemic. In addition, ACS helped over a dozen governments with the evacuation out of Afghanistan, finding aircraft to carry 14,000 passengers. Christie’s division, private jets, came into play during the crisis to help transport people who had tested positive for COVID-19 and weren’t able to board regular aircraft.

He said: “We do a lot of medical evacuation flights for people, but not at the kind of levels that we saw in the last year and a half.”

According to its website, the company has also been involved in the following relief efforts: floods in Bolivia (2008), a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe (2009), hurricanes and earthquake in Haiti (2008 & 2010), floods in Mozambique (2013), earthquakes in Nepal (2015) and the hurricane in Puerto Rico (2017).

Wildfire suppression

In 2020, Scientists and environmental groups began to express alarm after new data revealed that, in July 2020, there had been a 28% increase in fires within Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, compared with the previous year. And it seems that you can’t switch on the news or scroll through social media without stumbling across images of a world in flames. So, what are the logistics of battling fast spreading fire? And how does that involve business aviation?   

Across the globe, the sector has been providing vital support to help quell raging wildfires. In 2019, as more than 165,000 fires burned across the Amazon rainforest, CBC reported that Coulson Aviation, a privately-owned family company based in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada, sent three helicopters and crews to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, at the request of the Bolivian government, to help with fire suppression efforts. According to its website, “the company has over 160,000 safe flight hours and has been in the aviation business for over 36 years, operating a diverse fleet of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft”.

Similarly, in August 2021, the company provided support fighting the ‘Antonio Fire’ in the Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles. The United States Forest Service (USFS) requested the assistance of two Coulson Aviation Chinooks as part of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) program. Both Helitanker 55 and Helitanker 47 were deployed

Hurricanes, storms, and earthquakes

In the US, there is even a go-to list of people in the business aviation community who are part of a disaster mobilization effort. The National Business Aviation Association’s (NBAA) Humanitarian Emergency Response Operator database, which is referred to as HERO (a rather apt acronym), lists basic information that can be provided to organizations coordinating relief efforts in the aftermath of major crises.

An example of this at play was during a Category 1 hurricane, dubbed Superstorm Sandy, which took place on October 29, 2018, along the southern New Jersey coast. Here, the database worked with national emergency agencies and personnel to assist with post-storm relief efforts using business aircraft.

Further relief was provided by the business aviation sector during Hurricane Dorian, an extremely powerful Category 5 Atlantic hurricane, which, in 2019, became the most intense tropical cyclone ever to strike the Bahamas. According to the NBAA, the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, particularly in the Bahamas, “prompted a huge, and what undoubtedly will be a long-lasting, humanitarian response from the business aviation community”.

The NBAA continued: “airports, FBOs [fixed-base operators], regional aviation groups and humanitarian groups coordinated help, such as locations to drop off supplies, and information about which airports were staging aircraft”.

Medical marvels

Across the Atlantic, Farmingdale, New York-based non-profit, Patient AirLift Services (PALS), arranges free flights for medical patients who need to access medical care that they might not be able to get to by car and cannot afford to fly commercially.

PALS also offers “compassionate missions”, whereby it arranges volunteer flights for family members of patients and assists military personnel and their families. The company also has a history of supporting humanitarian efforts in the event of natural or man-made disasters. Here, pilots “fly a wide range of general aviation aircraft. Most are unpressurized and seat four to six persons, including the pilot”.

Similarly, Angel Flight Oklahoma is another non-profit charity of pilots who serve Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. The organization, which is financially supported primarily by its volunteer pilots who donate their own planes, arranges free air transportation for “any legitimate, charitable, medically related need”. The service is “available to individuals and to health care organizations” and also includes arranging transportation for people in financial distress, or who “are in a time-critical, non-emergency situation due to their medical condition”.

Continuing to provide hope and support

So, the next time you turn on the television and see yet another humanitarian or environmental catastrophe, you can at least find comfort in the knowledge that there are a host of small bizjets working to provide vital support, aid, and transportation. And owing to the size and availability of its aircraft, which are often used to access hard to reach locations, the sector will continue to be at the forefront of humanitarian work during any personal or collective future crises.

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