Twenty-five years ago, an ambitious project entitled Avions Sans Frontières (ASF), was launched. The challenge was a major one: obtain two Cessna 206 planes, in order to open up the eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire at the time), a vast region where roads were, and still are, unsuitable for vehicles.
At the time, the Brothers of Christian Instruction were already well rooted in the Dungu region and were carrying out sustainable development projects through their small organization called Projet de Développement et d’Évangélisation (PRODEVA). “These planes represented a strong development tool, which would contribute to stimulating the entire region”, recalls Brother Robert Gonneville, then director general of PRODEVA, which would become Terre Sans Frontières in 1994. PRODEVA and members of the Quebec MBA Association then set up the organizational structure of Avions Sans Frontières, which included several local chapters, notably in Montreal, Laval, Quebec City and Saguenay. A massive fundraising campaign was thus organized to collect the $150,000 required for the purchase of the first plane, and for the launch of the project in the field, particularly for the construction of a hangar, the development of several runways (Dungu, Poko and Butembo) and for the installation of a radio system. The funding was mainly obtained from the Roncalli International Foundation, the Grey Nuns of Montreal and Alberta, the Brothers of Christian Instruction and the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Swimathons, entitled “Taking a Dip For the Third World”, were also organized throughout Quebec to complete the funding. Finally, the Dutch organization MIVA, committed to meeting the field operating costs, for the first years. It is Wings of Hope, an American organization specialized in humanitarian aviation, which provides the first plane and conducts the ferry-flight. Thus, the first Cessna 206 of Avions Sans Frontières left St. Louis, Missouri on March 27, 1984, to appear 8 days later in the vast sky over Kinshasa, at 12:15 p.m. On board, the American pilot Jim Creighton had just cleared 7000 miles in seven great steps: St. Louis, Missouri – Montreal, Quebec – St. John’s, Newfoundland – Ponta Delgada, Açores – Las Palmas, Canary Islands – Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Libreville, Gabon – Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. He experienced nearly fifty hours of solitude, facing the glazed frosts of the North Atlantic, the monotony of the desert and the storms of the intertropical zone. A route alteration even had to be made in order to avoid flying over a region, which was suddenly declared a war zone. However, Jim Creighton had made it. He was exhausted but happy to have reached his destination, and anxious to resume his work as a commercial pilot in the United States. The pilot Jean-Maurice Drolet, who handled all the logistics in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then took the Cessna 206 to its base, in Dungu. This is where the pilots Pierre Lajeunesse and Phoebe Kingscote, a couple from British Columbia, then started the first humanitarian aviation operations. A Second Plane The idea, from the start of the Avions Sans Frontières project, was to purchase two Cessna 206 type planes in order to ensure maximum coverage in the Eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Therefore, as soon as the first plane was operational in the field, steps were undertaken to send a second one. This time, the plane would be based in Butembo, near Goma, in the Kivu. Thus, the fundraising campaign continues, coupled with a great Pan-Canadian promotional tour, carried out aboard a Cessna 337 lent by Wings of Hope. Guy Gervais, who, since 1987, piloted a Cessna 206 for ASF six months each year, during twenty years, takes over the controls of this great promotional flight. The efforts prove fruitful since in March 1985, one year after the first Cessna 206’s departure to Africa, a second plane, similar to the first, is sent thanks to the financial support of the Roncalli International Foundation, but mostly to the American organization Wings of Hope, which practically donates this second plane. Again, the American pilot Jim Creighton crosses the Atlantic to bring the plane to its destination. Another pilot from Quebec, Robert Fleury, accompanied by his wife Marie Danielle-Croteau, takes over the controls in Butembo. From then on, Avions Sans Frontières becomes a completely operational humanitarian aviation project, which mainly focuses on development and pastoral animation.