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Heart mission: How SWISS Pilot Pascal helps save lives at sea

Thirty-two-year-old Pascal Stadelmann leads a double flying life. He’s been a pilot with SWISS since 2018. And he’s also Chief Project Officer at the Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI) foundation. We talked to Pascal about his passion for flying, his personal challenges in his HPI work and what precisely he does there to help people in need. Pascal’s blending of his pilot’s profession with his humanitarian concern is an inspirational example of how a passion and a purpose can be tellingly combined.

Pascal, how did you find out about the HPI foundation? Through my love of ‘all things aviation’ and my desire to make a difference! We’re pretty privileged in Switzerland: we really have fortunate lives. But there are so many other people in genuine need all over the world. I want to use my skills as a pilot to help other people: I have this strong urge within me to give something back. The Humanitarian Pilots Initiative was set up in Switzerland seven years ago – just as I was looking around to find a way of combining my passion for flying with a humanitarian cause. So I got in touch with them.

Is there a link between HPI and SWISS? Well, whatever links there are were probably forged by me! When the Ukraine conflict began, I approached Swiss WorldCargo and asked them if they could help us at HPI to transport some relief supplies. They were great, and got our goods out to where they needed to be, with a minimum of fuss and all free of charge. We were also able to park our small Beechcraft Baron 58 aircraft (see info box) at SWISS Technics and have its maintenance performed in the large SWISS Technics hangar. Seeing our little Baron next to huge aircraft like the Airbus A340 and the Boeing 777 was really quite an experience!

How do your experiences as a SWISS pilot channel into your work with HPI? Well, I’d say that my experience in structured thinking, my work in the cockpit and the routine I’ve acquired as a commercial airline pilot are all hugely valuable for my duties with HPI. All these key skills really help me make the best decisions in challenging situations. When you’re flying a small aircraft, circling over a sinking boat and close to running out of fuel, you need to decide if you’re going to turn back or carry on with the mission. The ability to make such decisions is something I’ve honed through my airline job. At the same time, my HPI work helps me support the captain in the SWISS cockpit from my first officer’s position: in my HPI missions I’m the sole commander, flying over the Mediterranean with my crew for up to nine hours at a time. So it’s a win-win situation, for me and for SWISS.

“No mission ever turns out the way you imagined.” Pascal Stadelmann, SWISS Pilot & Chief Project Officer at HPI

Does your Beechcraft Baron let you perform more demanding manoeuvres than you could fly with one of our SWISS Airbuses?

Definitely! My training supervisor at Swiss AviationTraining once described me as a ‘freestyle pilot’. I wasn’t too pleased at the time: no airline pilot really wants to be known for their freestyle abilities. But there are moments during my HPI missions over the sea when I need to draw on my ‘freestyle tendencies’. No mission ever turns out the way you planned or imagined it. So you have to make quick decisions and revise those plans. That takes improvisational skills – which are very different from the abilities I need in my SWISS pilot’s capacity. In the cockpit of our Airbus A220s, everything is clearly prescribed. If you need to improvise there, you must be in a pretty exceptional situation.

“On average, we’re up in the air for eight to nine hours.” Pascal Stadelmann

Could you describe a typical HPI mission over the Mediterranean Sea? Sure. The decision on whether we’ll fly a mission on a particular day will generally be taken the evening before. If the waves aren’t too high then, boats may well be setting out for mainland Europe from the Libyan coast. So if the weather allows, we’ll fly the following day. If we’ve heard of a boat that’s in trouble, though, we’ll fly anyway and try to locate it.

We’ll generally get to our airfield in Lampedusa an hour before our planned departure and prepare for the flight. It’s very important that the plane’s windows are clean, as we’ll be flying under visual flight rules and using our eyes to search. The crew will consist of four to five persons – a team from the Sea-Watch organization and me as the HPI pilot. The Sea-Watch team will have a tactical coordinator who looks after the tactical side of the operation while I do the flying, a further member to film and take photos, and the rest serving as spotters.

On average we’re up in the air for eight to nine hours. And we’ll generally fly a set search pattern between Lampedusa, Libya and Malta. If we sight a boat, things tend to get pretty hectic. We decide how we want to proceed, we pass on the information to our crew on the ground, and we send out an emergency call. If we come across a dinghy that is overloaded and is evidently in distress, we’ll notify the authorities or the coastguard. In those cases we’ll also try to contact any other vessels in the vicinity – cargo ships, NGO vessels, anyone.

When we get back to Lampedusa, I’ll take care of the aircraft, and fill it up again with avgas. That’s not always available on Lampedusa, though, so I may have to fly to Malta or Palermo to refuel instead.

You can’t do anything to help the people below directly from your aircraft. How do you handle that? You’re right: we can’t get directly involved. But our collaborations with organizations like Sea-Watch do enable us to pass on information and request help. So we really are supporting the rescue efforts here. We are helpless to intervene, though; and it’s pretty tough when you see a boat capsize, or see the Libyan coastguard take a boat back, in a clear contravention of human rights. That can be hard to deal with. But I do find, too, that the fact we are unable to get directly involved gives me a certain distance.

"That confirmed to me that we can make a difference and help save people’s lives". Pascal Stadelmann

What’s been your best moment so far since you started working for HPI? One experience that I found particularly rewarding was meeting someone I had spotted at sea later in a refugee centre. I’d seen this person adrift in the Mediterranean, and three weeks later I was talking to them face to face in Lucerne. That confirmed to me that we can make a difference and help save people’s lives.

How is the HPI foundation organized? And what’s the SVAS? The Humanitarian Pilots Initiative or HPI was founded seven years ago, and has since grown to some 35 volunteers. Our aim is to use aviation to help people in need. And one of the ways we do so is with our Super Versatile Airdrop System, or SVAS for short. The SVAS lets us deliver humanitarian supplies such as food, water purification materials and medicines using recycled emergency parachutes that have been donated by paraglider pilots. These chutes enable us to drop large volumes – between 30 and 180 kilos – of relief supplies precisely and efficiently into often inaccessible areas. When no other means of transport can be used, parachute drops are the only way to reach the people concerned. HPI wants to offer this special airdrop capability in particular to smaller local humanitarian organizations that could not afford to develop an effective system like this themselves.

Interview and text: Mike Beutler Published on 28.07.2023


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