The Frey family resided in Kinshasa, from where most of Nick’s flying took place, but what kind of missions did he fly? “It was really anything and everything. Basically, all of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and humanitarian groups that are in the Congo and need to get into the interior Congo have to use un (United Nations) or MAF aircraft. Those are the only options to get around. We flew for groups like World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Fund, and anybody who wanted to have an impact on the interior of the country. There are no roads, no railways, the rivers take weeks, so planes are basically the only option. The roads that did exist were alright for shipping items that were not fragile, such as mosquito nets.”
MAF aircraft were utilized to transport people, fragile medical equipment, or items such as medicine or vaccines which had to be kept cold for a certain amount of time. Vaccines, for example, had to be delivered within 48 hours. “I once flew six dirt bikes for the World Wildlife Fund. We fit all six of them into a Caravan – that was a tight squeeze!”
Nick explained that “we were essentially an on-call, on-demand charter company, but specifically for NGOs and humanitarian groups, as well as church mission groups and mission hospitals.”
During deadly Ebola virus outbreaks, Nick flew journalists, aid workers, doctors, the DRC’s minister of health, and other delegates, such at the Anglican Church’s Archbishop of Canterbury, to Ebola sites. Of course, there have also been other situations where MAF's crews and aircraft have proved to be incredibly useful, such as directly helping people affected by cholera outbreaks and the constant threat of malaria. Nick himself has had malaria at least ten times.
“Sometimes we would fly medevac flights to Kinshasa,” said Nick. “I remember one where a village chief passed away. They called him the king of a tribe near the Angolan border. He was sick so we picked him up and took him to Kinshasa for medical attention, but he didn’t make it. We flew his body back in a Casket. We ended up making four or five flights with passengers, who wanted to attend the funeral, to this small village airstrip. We had the only aircraft in that half of the country that could physically land at that airstrip.” He explained, “It is very important in Congolese culture to be buried in your home village.”
Naturally, there are risks associated with flying in the DRC, which is known for having the highest frequency of thunderstorms in the world, as well as having the second largest rainforest in the world, after the Amazon. According to Nick, “Weather can be a problem. Typically, we would see thundershower cells in Congo. Usually you could fly around them, even if it meant flying thirty or forty miles to the left or right. We never had to deal with snow or icing, so that was a blessing for a Canadian pilot to never have to deal with that!”
What about conflict in the region? “For our base in the east, near Nyankunde, it is quite often a problem. If the rebel groups come near one of the trigger points we have in our security protocols, MAF personnel would typically get in the aircraft, evacuate and wait in Uganda for the situation to calm down. In Kinshasa, the tension was from political drama. There would often be protests for one political party or another. They would impede our operations because we couldn’t physically reach the hangar from our houses and our kids couldn’t get to school, and schools would be closed. Instead of ‘snow days’, our kids would have ‘political unrest days’. These protests would typically happen every four to six months.”
As for living in the DRC, life for pilots’ families can be somewhat isolating, due to security measures in residential areas, such as tall walls, razor wire and security guards. That said, there are several high-quality international schools for MAF crews’ children to attend.
Now that they are back in Canada, does the Frey family miss the DRC? “Most certainly! We all do, but there are certain things were really enjoy here in Canada. I bike to work and I would never do that in Kinshasa. We go to the park and we don’t have ten-foot walls around our home. We have so much freedom. What we miss most about the DRC is the people – friends and coworkers. I miss flying out in the jungle and spending the night in the middle of nowhere.”