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The Eagle above the Mediterranean

Pascal Stadelmann has been volunteering for the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative for five years.

The Lucerne pilot flies missions over the Mediterranean in search of refugee boats.

by Pascal Vogel

Lampedusa is located about 200 kilometres south of Sicily. The island, which is just 20 square kilometres in size, is known for its beautiful beaches and crystal-clear water. In recent years, however, it has made headlines for another reason: thousands of refugees arrive on the island every year via the southern Mediterranean route (see box). But by no means all of them make it. Time and again, boats capsize and get into distress at sea. This is precisely what Pascal Stadelmann wants to prevent and thus save lives. For five years, the Lucerne native has been working on a voluntary basis for the "Humanitarian Pilots Initiative" foundation - HPI for short.

"We Swiss are extremely privileged and have everything. My aspiration is to give back some of this good fortune and help people in need," he says. At the origin of his voluntary work is the hinterland, more precisely Dagmersellen, Nebikon and Willisau. As a socio-cultural animator, he welcomed refugees to the asylum shelters in 2016 and 2017. The stories and the faces of the people, mainly from Eritrea, leave a lasting impression on the man from Schwarzenberg. "They had just crossed the Mediterranean and must have experienced terrible things. That made me think," he says. From airline pilot to humanitarian aid worker The thoughts did not let go of him even when he completed his training as an airline pilot and was sitting in the cockpit of Swiss. "I never aspired to a pure airline career," he says. When Stadelmann came across an article by HPI, he didn't hesitate to help make his first plane airworthy. The organisation gives him a perspective to create a symbiosis between his two passions: Flying and providing humanitarian aid. But until Stadelmann sits in the cockpit of the "Seabird", several more months pass. "At the beginning, everything was pretty disorganised. They simply forgot about my email," he says and laughs. Since then, the "Chief Operating Officer" has been working towards professionalisation.

Actually, the 32-year-old works full-time as an airline pilot for Swiss. However, when the corona pandemic paralysed air traffic, he devoted himself entirely to the humanitarian project. His employment with the airline is still suspended until October. At the same time, this means that Stadelmann lacks a secure income. "To keep my head above water, I have to tighten my belt very tightly," he says. That's why he has gone to South America over the winter, when there are few boats on the Mediterranean. Not to take a holiday. From Ecuador, he continues to build up the organisational development, holds talks with possible partners via video telephony and pushes the professionalisation of the foundation. "All I need at the moment is a good internet connection, a little warmth and all this at a reasonable price."

The search for the needle in the haystack Pacific coast instead of Mediterranean island. More than 10,000 kilometres currently separate Pascal Stadelmann from his actual assignment in Lampedusa. In three months' time, he will be back in the field. The coming day usually begins the evening before, when Sea-Watch, a partner organisation of HPI, decides whether to fly the next day. "We have a lot of experience and know when it is possible for boats to pass through the surf in Libya and when the waves are too high," says Stadelmann. After an administrative tour de force, it's off on the flight, which takes an average of six to eight hours. It takes half an hour until the "Seabird" arrives in the area of operation and the search for the needle in the haystack begins. A search pattern is flown 500 metres above the water. The four to five crew members try to use every angle of the plane. If a boat is spotted, Stadelmann goes even lower to be able to see and assess the situation better. If it is a boat in distress, a distress call is immediately made and help is requested. Otherwise, HPI documents the situation as accurately as possible and passes the records on to the authorities and civilian partners. "There are days when 30 boats are out, on other days nothing happens at all," says Pascal Stadelmann. The flights are not only mentally but also physically very stressful. It is extremely hot on the plane. There is no air conditioning. This saves fuel, but it gets up to 50 degrees in the cockpit. Then there is the emotional component. When Stadelmann sees things that "aren't so great". For example, when refugee boats are forced back by the Libyan coast guard in illegal pushbacks. Or when the crew knows there is a boat somewhere below them, but they can't find it, run out of fuel and have to turn back. "That's really tough then," he says. Back on Lampedusa, the members of Sea-Watch and HPI go to the crew house where they all live. Pascal Stadelmann has another flight to Malta or Palermo to refuel. A few hours later, he too is sitting on the roof terrace, where the debriefing is taking place over a beer and the members are reviewing the mission. "They are very long days, especially in the middle of summer, when there is almost always chaos at sea," says Stadelmann. The flight times are exhausted, but within legal limits. "Nevertheless, a week on Lampedusa pushes me to my limits." And so one of HPI's goals is to recruit even more pilots to be able to better distribute the shifts.

to be able to distribute the shifts better. Another thing is to be able to pay the volunteers. Pascal Stadelmann would like to be able to divide his workload equally between scheduled flights and humanitarian missions over the Mediterranean. Before the outbreak of the covid pandemic, he had to find ways to reconcile both commitments. Unpaid leave or good coordination of days off enabled him to be active in the Mediterranean for a longer period.

Inbetween two worlds

The worlds in which Pascal Stadelmann moves are completely different. On the one hand, there are the people who board a plane for a holiday, and on the other hand, there are the refugees who, in search of a safer life, board overcrowded boats and risk death. "You look at people's problems on a commercial plane differently and wonder if those are really their biggest concerns," he says. But he perceives the contrast even more starkly on Lampedusa. "It's high season there in the summer. The tourists party on Via Roma, 50 metres away from them the refugee boats arrive." In April, Pascal Stadelmann returns to the small Mediterranean island. His mission on Lampedusa is far from over. "It would be nice if no one had to flee anymore. But I'm not naïve: there will always be people who risk their own lives for a safer one."


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