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Mercy Air, a White River, South Africa-based humanitarian relief organisation, has received a donation of an Airbus AS350B2 helicopter from US air medical service Air Methods to support humanitarian relief flights in southern Africa. The helicopter will enable Mercy Air to expand medical, agricultural and educational programmes and disaster response in the region.
According to Matthias Reuter, director of Mercy Air helicopter operations, the donated helicopter will significantly benefit at-risk populations: “Air Methods' generous gift will dramatically expand our relief flight operations into unserved rural areas in southern Africa,” he says. “The helicopter will enable us to efficiently reach tens of thousands of individuals annually who would otherwise lack access to basic medical care or vital supplies during natural and manmade disasters. Additionally, the helicopter will support our flight training programme for pilots joining our team without interrupting essential relief flights.”
Mercy Air's private flight operations, which now include three Airbus AS350B2 helicopters and two fixed wing aircraft (a Quest Kodiak and a Cessna 310), enable humanitarian service in a region where great distances, limited infrastructure and difficult topography make access unfeasible via other modes of transport. By reducing travel time from days by land to mere hours by air increases the effectiveness, economy and impact of relief efforts and maximises the delivery of care. Reuter continues: “We routinely serve people who cannot be efficiently reached by ground transportation. Travel in many service areas requires many hours to days by four-wheel drive vehicles, or canoe in severe conditions. Helicopters can reduce travel time to minutes. This significantly increases service time for volunteer teams and the capacity to transport essential materials such as medicine, agricultural supplies and emergency rations. Helicopters are the most effective means to deliver volunteer medical teams, educators and agronomists and their supplies to people who live beyond the end of the road.”
One such medical outreach supported by Mercy Air is Sight Flight Eswatini, which provides free vision screenings, single diopter reading glasses and corrective surgeries for cataracts and other eye disorders. Eswatini was formerly known as Swaziland. Jonathan Pons, who directs eye care programmes from Good Shephard Hospital in remote Siteki, states: “The use of Mercy Air's helicopters to deliver our medical teams into remote communities has been truly life-changing. There were many villages in Eswatini that we had not reached for more than a decade whose people now receive the gift of sight rather than endure blindness and diminished life expectancy. Mercy Air's newest helicopter will not only support continued Sight Flight operations but expand vital medical services such as diabetes, cardiology, neonatal and dental care.”
The donated helicopter has been repositioned to MMS Aviation at Coshocton Richard Downing airport in Coshocton, Ohio, where it will be transitioned from medevac to utility configuration. This represents the third such collaboration between Mercy Air and MMS Aviation, a peer non-profit mission aviation organisation that provides Mercy Air with hangar space and assistance from experienced aircraft mechanics without charge. Reconfiguration will include removal of the aeromedical care kit, additional seating to accommodate a pilot and six passengers, an external load cargo hook, new communications and navigation equipment and various upgrades to enhance performance and safety. Following the projected several month maintenance and flight training programme, the helicopter will be transported to southern Africa to initiate operations.
Reuter is very grateful: “Partnerships, large and small, are essential to support our relief flight operations. We are eternally grateful that Air Methods has chosen to partner with us in the ongoing work.”
In Eswatini, using an AS350B2, Mercy Air has been partnering with a local anti-venom foundation to supply the population with antidotes. Eswatini is home to a number of highly poisonous snakes, including the black mamba, which can reach up to four metres in length. Thea Listcha-Koen, co-founder of the Eswatini Anti-venom Foundation, reports enthusiastically about this vital new partnership. The antiserum required for dangerous snakebites is currently only available centrally and not in sufficient quantities for nationwide distribution in the country. It is difficult in an emergency to be able to get it to a remote location in time to be effective.
A Mercy Air helicopter recently transported antiserum from the central warehouse to a remote location in the mountainous Lubombo region for the first time, and was thus able to provide a patient with the life-saving product. Such missions on a non-profit basis are particularly valuable for those in need in the country.
Mercy Air was founded in 1991. In addition to Eswatini, its principal countries of operation are Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Zambia, Angola, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Service into Kenya, Tanzania and even Madagascar can be coordinated on an ad hoc basis.