Friday, April 7, 2017

Humanitarian Aviation In the Spotlight at Parks College Atlas Week Event 

By Carmelo Turdo
Students, faculty and guests gathered in the Carlo Auditorium of Tegeler Hall at Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology on the St. Louis University campus Thursday for the special Atlas Week program, "Planes With a Purpose: Humanitarian Aviation."  The audience was introduced to humanitarian air services provided in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and in the United States, including Alaska, among other places around the world.  

St. Louis University's Tegeler Hall is located in the row of Parks College academic buildings.  This corner of the campus features a Cessna 310, formerly used by Parks College for multi-engine pilot training, on display along with the striking statue aptly named "Aviator" portraying Elrey B. Jeppesen.   

The program was introduced by John Breckenridge, a second-year flight student at Parks College, St. Louis University, and President of the Alpha Eta Rho Aviation Fraternity chapter.  In his opening remarks, Breckenridge made the connection between the fraternity's mission and the humanitarian service given by the guest speakers.  "A big part of what we do is build leaders that go on to become leaders in the industry and role models," he began.  "I have three role models here today."  He reminded the audience that Oliver Parks donated his flight school to St. Louis University in part for gratitude to the Jesuits who rescued him from a plane crash in 1927, and that the current St. Louis University, through Atlas Week activities, continues the tradition of humanitarian service.

 Dr. Stephen Belt, an Aviation Science professor at Parks College, flew with Air Serv International in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2003 and 2005.  DRC is the largest area of operations for Air Serv International, and Dr. Belt flew missions from a base in Goma to support over 30 different organizations needing air transportation to perform their relief services.  This impoverished country has endured numerous internal conflicts and the effects of the Rwandan genocide, with one such civil war ending just before Dr. Belt arrived in 2003.  The remnants of the warfare, including militia groups and traumatized child soldiers, were still evident.  

Dr. Belt put his experience flying relief missions in central Africa in perspective with service in general.  "Flying in Africa is a lot like flying in Missouri," he said.  "The airplanes don't know the geopolitical boundaries underneath.  The flying was the normal part of my day.  What was different was when we headed back to Goma."  The day's flying activities brought exposure to extreme poverty, potential armed conflict and the social effects of constant warfare, but the resilience of the people was a sign of hope.  Reflecting on these hardships was often more difficult than carrying out the mission.  

Dr. Jessica Watson, Global Programs & Partnerships Director for Wings of Hope, gave an overview of the programs established in eleven countries as well as in the United States.  St. Louis-based Wings of Hope has been providing humanitarian aviation flights and support services for over fifty years and maintains a base of operations and administration at Spirit of St. Louis Airport.  Wings of Hope also has a growing local relationship with the Parks College chapter of Alpha Eta Rho.

Wings of Hope provides assistance to humanitarian aviation service providers around the world in the form of aircraft acquisition, maintenance, volunteer pilots and other support services that assist in the sustainability of societies within the local areas.  In addition to aviation services, Wings of Hope provides training and startup resources for self-supporting agricultural and craft industries.  Programs in Tanzania and Zambia serve thousands of medial patients and have been successful in establishing sustainable medical practices.  "We always partner with a trusted non-profit that is in-country," Dr. Watson explained.  "We provide partnerships to our eleven field sites."  Effective coordination provides the most effective use of resources to treat more patients, support more communities and build indigenous capabilities for the future.  

An example of how Wings of Hope supports other humanitarian aviation service providers can be found in a previous story from The Aero Experience:  2016 Year In Aviation Service: Missionary Pilot Teams With Midwest Aviation Community for New Project.        

Wings of Hope also provides medical transport services within the United States for patients needing care by specialists outside of St. Louis.  The Medical Relief and Air Transport Program provided air transportation for 285 patients last year using Wings of Hope aircraft or through funding commercial airline flights.  Three aircraft serve this program from the St. Louis Wings of Hope facility.  A core 18 volunteer pilots serve families who otherwise would not have access to life-saving treatments.  Along with arranging air transportation, Wings of Hope provides advocacy services that help patients receive medical care that would otherwise be financially beyond their reach.      

Father James Sebesta received his Private Pilot Certificate at 17 years old and flew in Alaska for 28 years.  He came to Parks College in 1994 and became part of the flight training staff.  As a pilot and a Jesuit Priest, Father Sebesta flew the Diocese Bishop in the vastness of Alaska.  The many hours of flying in such unforgiving territory provided opportunities for helping others along the way. 

Father Sebesta once flew a child with severe burns through a blizzard to get advanced medical care when even the ground ambulance service would not risk the trip.  On another occasion, he assisted in an aerial search and rescue of a downed aircraft along a mountain pass, though this time without success.  Air ambulance services were usually the prevue of established companies who rely on the revenue for subsistence, but on occasion, Father Sebesta would fly a patient to a medical facility when other services were not available.  "What do you do?" he asked the audience rhetorically.  "You respond to the need."  He put the stretcher patient in his Piper Navajo and flew the patient to the medical facility when the air ambulance services could not land in his local town. 

"When a need arises, what do you do?" Father Sebesta asked again to conclude his remarks.  "You supply that need.  There are so many ways that you can help others (besides with aviation).  If you've been blessed in ways that you can supply help, do it."  

Following the individual presentations, all three panelists answered questions from the audience.  Flight simulator sessions and some great cookies were waiting in the lobby after the program. 


Since 2001, St. Louis University has been hosting Atlas Week programs to discuss global issues and how to address them in the spirit of the Jesuit tradition.  Departments throughout the university inform and educate students, faculty and the general public on current topics in their area of expertise and encourage creative solutions to global problems.  The Aero Experience thanks Parks College for including a program on humanitarian aviation services during Atlas Week.

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