Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, two cybersecurity experts from Germany, Kay Wolf, founder and CEO of E2 Security, and Stefan Sahling of the German software giant SAP, set out to send supplies and aid to their fellow workers and friends in Ukraine. Given the chaos and bureaucracy of getting supplies across borders, the two devised a plan to fly the cargo in small planes. Their Ukrainian contacts would organize the ground transfer from Poland into Ukraine. Stefan, a pilot for over 15 years, and Kay, an aviation enthusiast, enlisted their friends who either had planes or access to them through flying clubs.
Ukraine Air Rescue (UAR) came to life in just a few days. Within six months, UAR had grown to 313 volunteer pilots worldwide. The pilots range from retired or current airline and military pilots, flight instructors, professional pilots, an EASA safety inspector, and many VFR private pilots. The mix of participating airplanes ranges from the French-built Robin to Pilatus PC-12s and just about everything in between.
I heard about UAR through a friend of mine in Kyiv, Ukraine. He had evacuated his home in the heavily bombed area of Irpin with his wife, cat, and several elderly neighbors. After several days in the woods, they joined up with other refugees and ended up in the Czech Republic. Along the way, a UAR flight delivered supplies to them. A few weeks later, I flew from Florida to Germany via the North Atlantic route in my Cirrus SR22, the first US pilot to join the UAR forces.
Once in Germany, I found a well-organized, well-funded, and friendly group of general aviation pilots. The mission: fly critically needed medical supplies to the Poland-Ukraine border and return with refugees needing medical care. Initially, I was based at Mainz-Finton (EDFZ) just outside of Frankfurt for 30 days and then at Bonn-Hangelar (EDKB) for another 30 days. The locations are determined by the needs of various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that UAR supports.
Flights are generally planned for Wednesdays and Saturdays or on request. Mandatory briefings are held two days before the flight and again the day before each flight. Weather, load planning, flight plans, required approvals, return passengers, and NOTAMs are all briefed thoroughly.
Cargo is delivered numbered, and weighed, and a detailed manifest is prepared. All aircraft are required to operate within their required weight and balance limits. Depending on the airports used, the one-way distance from most German airports to the Poland-Ukraine border airports is approximately 550 nm. In the Cirrus SR22, this is a 7-hour round trip flight and a 10-hour or more duty day. Other aircraft may take longer. Weather, mechanicals, and duty time sometimes require an overnight at the border airport. Ukraine airspace remains closed, and all flights operate within safe airspace and airports at all times.
Returning with the passengers can be an emotional experience. Arrangements are made through the NGOs for passengers to return to Germany on the flights. Passengers might be Ukrainian refugees or military, all needing medical care. Missing hands, arms, and legs are frequent. Also frequent are stories of atrocities committed by Russians. Email addresses and Facebook pages are all exchanged. New friends are made, and hospital visits might follow to check on them. At the end of the 10 to 12-hour day, you are drained.
UAR has become the air-link for several NGOs. There are a number of them supplying aid to Ukraine. These NGOs move supplies via rail, truck, and sprinter vans, but when it comes to time-sensitive, critically needed medical supplies, a quick and reliable way to move them is through UAR. Flights are flown to airports in Poland that are near the Ukraine border. After landing, volunteer drivers with credentials to cross the border drive the supplies directly to their destination. It might be a hospital, a clinic, or locations along the front. From leaving the NGO warehouse to arrival at the Ukraine destination is one day.
Volunteer pilots also volunteer their planes. You might ask, “is there not a better way to move these supplies than small planes?” The answer is probably yes but at what cost? On a typical UAR mission, there might be anywhere from three to six planes leaving from two or three different airports supporting two or three NGOs, with 2,000 to 3,000 lbs. or more of medical supplies. All flights are headed to the same destination.
The volunteer pilots provide their planes and sometimes, even pay their own fuel costs. Other times there are donations available for the fuel. The end cost of the flight transportation to the NGO, and ultimately to the end user, is zero. Since most NGOs operate through donations, the cost of the goods delivered to the user is also zero. It is so efficient that during the two months I volunteered, we quickly moved over 150 Ukraine Army Medic Backpacks. The contents of each backpack cost $1,000. The contents are either donated by hospitals, drug companies, or paid for through donations. The backpacks are delivered to locations along the front at no cost to the Army. Try running the same program through the Pentagon.
While there are several humanitarian flight organizations worldwide, Ukraine Air Rescue is likely the largest group of general aviation pilots ever assembled for a single cause. Here, general aviation pilots, many of whom are VFR private pilots, have bound together and are using their planes in a manner that significantly contributes to the Ukraine effort. In the first six months of operation, the group had flown 65 flights, carried 52 passengers needing medical care, hauled over 37,000 lbs. of medical supplies, and delivered over 150 medic backpacks.
What does the future hold? As the flight demand grows, so does the network of pilots and planes. Most of the Ukrainian airports have been destroyed, but pilots within Ukraine are already preparing serviceable grass runways in anticipation of the war ending and the airspace opening. When it does open, there is no doubt that Ukraine Air Rescue will be some of the first planes to deliver aid into Ukraine.
If you are interested in flying your plane for a higher cause, visit their website.
- Flying for Ukraine Air Rescue—small planes, big mission - August 29, 2022
- Flying a Cirrus VFR across Russia - November 1, 2021
- Stepping down in automation—the real lesson for children of the magenta line - September 21, 2020
God bless you and all those who are helping those in great need. May each of you find fair skies and following winds on every flight.
I’d like to help. I am a pilot, own a T210, but have access to others.
What an inspiration to us all.
Totally awesome mission.
Thanks to all the brave heroes out there who give their time and money. What an inspiration!
So good to see such commitment to helping these people in need. Keep up your good work!
USA SCHOOL busses don’t have money to do field trips. Yet there is money for war
Weel said. Dog bless the MIC, long may it continue in adding to the world’s misery.
Yet, another money laundering project “for a good cause”, exploiting kindness of mis- or under-informed people. Nothing personal , John, you’r doing a good thing, but still, being fooled. (and yes , i know what im talking about, as being quite into the topic of this war)
Maybe you are the one who is under-informed as this is not a war, remember that it is a “Special Military Operation” aka “A Crimal Enterprise”. So why don’t you submit an article as to how it is that you are “being quite into the topic of this war”? Make sure that you include the subject of “Bucha”.
Exactly, John, perfect example of well made propaganda case for everyone to get rightfully angry and overwhelmed by emotions …. without actually looking into facts. Bucha case suddenly exploded in mass media … and as soon as british researchers involved in the investigation filed coroners results on dead bodies of Bucha residents …suddenly went quiet. Reason is that most of casualties were from flechettes (from artillery shells), The Guardian , of cause, blamed russians(what a surprise), but nobody cared to think how russian army would use artillery against Bucha or Irpen while being inside Bucha and Irpen. And that when russian troops were leaving Bucha they got shelled by ukranian army and no one cared if there were any civilians on the streets at that time.
Nobody cares for facts, emotions are used to control anyone attached to media sources.
And again, im sure you are a good person and trying to help, but sure you are being fooled. Sorry for bring it all up here, in aviation journal discussion, but i lived half of my life in Ukraine and after moving to Canada continue to visit my home country every half a year and i did see it all happening for the last eight years and how my own home town was shelled , not by russian, but by ukrainian army in 2014 and media in Ukraine was just saying that it is “самообстрел” (self shooting) .
Does it matter who is dropping the bombs or which side is shooting artillery at whom? The other war – the information/misinformation war – seeks to win heart and mind, stoke anger and fuel emotion. Regardless of your view on this mess or how close to home it hits, one thing remains an awful reality: people are suffering. When your leg is shattered or your child is bleeding and the hospital is a pile of rubble, where do you turn? Do you spend your fleeting moments stewing in a broth of ideology? Do you care if the shell that destroyed your doctor’s office had a Russian or Ukrainian flag on it? Do you accept a helping hand that may save your life and that of your child? John, the work that you did and that which your fellow volunteer aviators are doing is a Godsend. There is a clear need for help and the pilots of UAR are doing it with personal risk and sacrifice. Why? Simply put it’s the right thing to do.
I like very much the way Andrew responded. This is a humanitarian effort at its finest. I’m proud of John for the commitment and courage he’s shown in actually doing something for humanity. These efforts will of course have no impact on the ultimate outcome of the conflict, nor should they. The conflict itself is not the point of John’s article or his commitment. It’s helping people, whoever they are, because it’s the right thing to do.
As for the school busses. We won’t need or have school busses if Russia gets it’s way like the Germans did in WWII.
This is a holy  moment for the whole world to pay attention to.
Thanks John you’re my hero. Lb
John thank you and your fellow pilots for such an incredible undertaking… the suffering the Ukrainian people are enduring is hard to comprehend as we sit comfortable here at home … you can see there fear and uncertainty in the children’s faces .. keep in mind Putin started this .. the Ukrainian’s did not invade Russia… hopefully Europe will not back down … this is their “ turf”.
I think the UAR is doing a good job. What better way for a motley group of aviators to unite and do these kind of humanitarian missions. Keep it going. . Politicking will continue but you continue doing your best. All the best.
Keep up the righteous work only through Goodwill your wings will stay great May the storms pass you by and your clear skies let you fly