Flying to the rescue
“I have had the pleasure of calling around to our pilots to find volunteers who would be willing to offer their spare time on a mission that was not even finalized at the time, which meant I couldn’t say when they would be back home with their families again. The only thing I could say was that we were set an assignment by the authorities that involved helping out people in need and that the trip would take at least 24 hours but could also extend over several days.”
Rasmus Ilsö Olsen joined SAS as a young pilot 23 years ago. In addition to his duties as a pilot, he has also worked with both pilot training and recruitment. Today, he is the Chief Pilot of SAS and has day to day responsibility for the group of pilots that fly Airbus 320s that are based in Copenhagen. He is also one of the staff involved in the latest mission where, at short notice, SAS was able to safely fly home Scandinavians who were stranded abroad.
There is nothing new in SAS being willing to help out at short notice and resolve urgent missions on behalf of Scandinavian governments in the event of humanitarian crises or other situations that require rapid and targeted action.
At short notice in spring 2020, SAS arranged a long haul flight to Lima, Peru, and to various short haul destinations in Europe, to evacuate Scandinavian citizens that had been stranded due to the Covid-19 global grounding of flights. If we look further back in history to 2004, SAS converted a number of aircraft to hospital aircraft in record time, to help the urgent life or death evacuation mission in Thailand following the devastating Tsunami that had struck the south of the country.
How do these flights differ from regular SAS flights?
The crucial difference is quite simply the time frame that we have available to get a special flight ready to go in an emergency situation. It involves being able to arrange both personnel and materials at short notice. Our normal operations, that before Covid-19, means on average around 800 daily departures, are planned months in advance under normal circumstances, and even though quite a few minor adjustments are made the nearer we come to the departure time, there is a good fundamental plan in place.
Special flights need to be quickly planned, and are often to destinations we do not normally go to, this involves a huge amount of planning work, which includes a great many different departments and incredibly competent people in our organization. Months of work normally go into launching a new destination, but here, we are talking days or hours.I am always impressed by their fantastic capability to solve even the most difficult situations.
Even the flight itself differs from a normal scheduled flight, as the business partners we in SAS use for our normal destinations that are always involved in flight landing and departure services, are not always available in the location. This can include services such as loading baggage, catering, issuing the flight paperwork or technical maintenance, where we suddenly cannot get the support we are used to. Pilots can resolve most of these tasks, even if it can take a bit longer to do. The challenge with technical maintenance was resolved by taking two engineers with us, plus 800 kg of tools, spare wheels and the most common spare parts needed.
How many SAS personnel are involved in these kinds of flights?
When you see a SAS plane lift into the air, you may not immediately think about all the different people from many different departments in our organization, who all have a role to play and responsibilities and have therefore performed a crucial and invaluable job in enabling the aircraft to take off safely and punctually.
This becomes clear when you need to plan a special flight, as no fewer than 15 departments, and many talented employees, each with their own specialist area, between them, need to plan, coordinate, and ensure that our special flights are undertaken as safely and reliably as a routine scheduled flight between Copenhagen and Stockholm for example.
What does it feel like to fly this kind of mission? What is different?
At SAS, we are happy to be able to undertake missions we are called on to perform in association with special flights and, in my experience, everyone in our organization accepts these missions with tremendous pleasure, motivation and flexibility, not least because on such occasions, it is very much about helping other people. Here, I am talking about the employees that are involved in planning and supporting these flights and not least, the personnel who undertake them.
I myself had the pleasure of calling many of our pilots to find volunteers who were prepared to help in their free time, on a mission that at that point in time, had not even been planned, which meant I could not even tell them when they would be back home again with their family. The only thing I could say, was that we have been asked to undertake a mission by the authorities that concerned helping people in a crisis and that the trip would take at least 24 hours and could also last several days. It was no surprise to me, but pleasing in any case, that the vast majority said yes after barely a second or two to think about it. We actually managed to get crew for most of the 22 evacuation flights exclusively with SAS air crew, who chose to sacrifice their free time to make a difference together with everyone else at SAS.
I was a pilot myself on the first evacuation flight from Copenhagen to Islamabad in August to evacuate 431 Afghan nationals who had been working for the Danish government. It was a pretty long trip, as for various reasons, we had to choose a route down through Europe, the Middle East, and then south of Iran and Afghanistan, through the Arabian Sea to Pakistan and finally Islamabad.
The flight took around 9 hours and 25 minutes. It is not normally possible to fly an Airbus 320NEO that far, despite its low fuel consumption, as you simply cannot take enough fuel on board. But thanks to a combination of an almost empty plane with low weight, choosing a lower than normal cruising speed and therefore using less fuel, we were still able to make it there.
And landing in Islamabad, where you have never flown to before? What was that like?
Landing a plane in Islamabad is not necessarily more difficult than landing in Luleå or Paris for example. The maps and approach procedures that are used, are the same standard as in the rest of the world, but naturally, there is a long list of local conditions that you need to consider. The weather can be a challenge. It is the rainy period right now in Pakistan and this can mean torrential showers, far heavier that we normally see in Europe. The weather was fine for us fortunately, but as ever in aviation, you always need to identify possible challenges and take appropriate precautions. Proper preparation and experience are crucial here.
My lasting impression is the level competence and pride that exists among our staff. This shows the strength of SAS. Friendship is always put to the test when you’re in most need of help, and at SAS we have proved to be up to the task.
Published: December 2, 2021