These days he flies for pleasure, but twenty years ago, Leon Didden risked his life flying food and medical supplies on a voluntary basis to stricken countries in Africa including Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Somalia and Ethiopia. After ten years of flying into some of the world’s most dangerous places, Didden was grounded by a nasty bout of malaria which put him into a coma for five months. Yet the illness didn’t put a stop to his enthusiasm for a little known charity Aviation sans Frontières (Aviation without Borders), providing voluntary air transport for NGOs and charities taking medicine, food and clothes to the victims of conflict, and transporting people from dangerous regions to safe places.
The seeds of ASF were sown in the late 1960s by a group of French pilots flying mercy missions to Biafra with humanitarian assistance, and evacuating malnourished children, shortly before the renowned French charity Medicins sans Frontières (doctors without Borders) was set up by a group of French doctors and journalists.
Didden, the retired proprietor of a well-known carpet business in Brussels, now run by his daughter Nathalie, was instrumental in setting up the Belgian wing of ASF, and was its president for ten years.
“We fly where others don’t fly,” he says. “It is the most beautiful and fantastic experience you can have, but you have to be a ‘bush pilot’, the man who can do everything,” he adds.
Pilots on these missions need to be stress-resistant, unafraid to fly in dangerous conditions and need to think outside the box, according to Didden. Unfortunately, he says, there are nowadays not many pilots willing to volunteer to fly to conflict regions for free. He says they either simply don’t have the time or are not mentally strong enough.
“Twenty years ago it was different,” says Leon Didden. “There were more pilots than there are today, a lot of things have changed.”
With ASF providing air transport for organisations such as MSF, Caritas and the United Nations, the organisation’s planes and fuel are funded by voluntary donations from individuals as well as larger sponsors such as the Rotary Club, the European Commission, and the UN. With sister organisations in France, the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany, ASF-Belgium currently boasts 20 active pilots qualified to fly the rugged single engined six-seater Cessna utility aircraft most suited to their missions.
Help out with a donation or by offering time or expertise; www.asfbelgium.org