Canadian seaplane lifeline for isolated Peru villages

Date: March 11, 1976
Location: Saskatoon, Canada
By: Norma Greenway
Newspaper: Star-Phoenix
Page: 36

IQUITOS, Peru – Canadians may curse the roar of a low-flying plane but, to the population scattered along the banks of the Amazon River, the same sound is cause for genuine rejoicing.

To a young woman with a troubled pregnancy, the sound means rapid transportation to hospital and, possibly, the difference between life and death for her and her baby.

To other isolated villagers, it may mean mail, fresh food, medical and educational supplies or even visitors.

The sound that shatters the natural tranquility of the jungle jungle signals the arrival of the Canadian seaplane Wings of Hope.

It usually brings all activity to an abrupt halt while men, women and children trek down the muddy riverbank to watch the silver craft land.

There are warm greetings and refreshments for pilot Edward Schertz, who has been flying this rugged territory in northeastern Peru almost daily for more than four years.

For many Amazon natives who lack mobility and a communication system, Schertz and the Wings of Hope represent their only consistent link with the outside world.

The 31-year-old pilot’s days are full and varied.

Based on Iquitos, the business capital of Peru’s jungle region, Schertz arrives at the Franciscan mission by 7 a.m. to prepare for a day of flying which could take him as far as the borders of Ecuador, Colombia or Brazil.

Although he develops a rough weekly schedule from the numerous requests for the flying service, the priority of the Wings of Hope organization is medical emergencies.

As a result, a day’s schedule often will be dumped or rearranged at the last minute if one of the 12 radio-equipped mission centres calls in with an emergency.

The Wings of Hope flying service, known as Alas de Esperanza to the people here, is supported by a group of Montreal businessmen and private contributors.

The non-profit, non-denominational organization flies for any group requiring transportation in these 185,000 square miles of barely penetrable jungle, where a 50-minute flight can save up to 15 days of boat travel.

“Real medical emergencies might account for 100 of my 800 flying hours a year … and there is no charge for these flights,” Schertz says.

“We have gradually been cutting down of the number of people brought to hospital in Iquitos. Unless it is a real emergency where there is no treatment in the mission, the people usually get better care if they stay put.”

The reduction in emergency flights also stems from the Quebec organization’s tougher stand on what constitutes an emergency, he adds.

Because all emergency flights are free, there were instances in the past of the service being abused. Schertz says the missionaries knew that, if they reported a medical emergency, the supplies scheduled for delivery to their outposts would come with the plane at no cost.

However, in the event of non-emergency flights, the group using the flying service pays half of the $86 it costs for each flight hour.

Schertz insists the only valid emergency is “a matter of life and death.”

“A woman hemorrhaging in childbirth is obviously an emergency. But snake bites are not always emergencies.”

The plane is being used more and more to facilitate the successful operation of preventative medicine programs.

Schertz admits this means more work for him and often requires overnight stops in remote villages.

To gain access to one village involves leaving the plane and traveling by canoe for several hours on one of the Amazon’s tributaries.

But Schertz refuses to acknowledge any real hardships and says he feels preventive medicine should be a priority.

For the recently-initiated vaccination program, the Peruvian ministry of health is supplying the vaccine. The Franciscans supply qualified medical personnel to isolated spots for the purpose of training natives in basic first aid.

The financial rewards for Schertz’s hectic schedule and responsibilities are a monthly living allowance of about $300 on which he supports a wife and two children.

While high by Peruvian standards, the Schertz family lives frugally in order to meet the daily costs of a city where prices reflect the fact it is accessible only by water or air.

But it was the work – not the idea of making a lot of money – that attracted Schertz to the jungle.

“I always wanted to fly, but could never justify it as a sport,” he says.

So, until he became a pilot and joined Wings of Hope, he worked as a mechanic and Mennonite volunteer in northeastern Brazil.

After three years there, he returned to the United States in 1968 and trained as a pilot.

“I heard about a U.S. Wings of Hope while I was at aviation school and knew it was the type of work I was looking for.”

In May, 1971, he joined the organization as a skilled mechanic and pilot and came to Peru where the Missouri-based group had been active since 1968.

When the U.S. Wings of Hope team turned over its two planes and Peruvian operation to the newly founded Quebec group in 1972, Schertz decided to stay on as one of the pilots.

The second plane is stationed in the Andean community of Satipo, located 2,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains ranging from 5,000 to 18,000 feet.

Pilot Jean Valiquette, a volunteer with the French Canadian counterpart of Canadian University Students Overseas – (CUSO) – recently completed a public relations tour in Quebec and Ontario.

The Peruvian government has extended the Wings of Hope contract for another five years and Schertz hopes a third plane will be in operation soon.

Another goal is to have Peruvian pilots take over the actual flying, but, so far, efforts to keep the people they have trained have failed.

The major problem is that, once they have received the necessary training, they take the first opportunity available to join a commercial airline where the money is much better, he says.

To counter this, the organization tells all interested persons they must get a private license on their own and guarantee at least two full years of service once their Wings of Hope training is completed.

Prior to the Canadian group taking on the Peruvian operation, U.S. Wings of Hope gained international recognition when pilot R.J. Weninger located the wreckage of a Lanza airliner that had plunged into the jungle on Dec. 24, 1971, carrying 92 passengers.

The only survivor was a 17-tear-old German girl, Juliane Koepche, who emerged 10-days later, guided by two Indian woodcutters.

While isolated Amazon inhabitants may never have heard about that particular event, they are certainly aware of what Wings of Hope has meant for many of their own people.

As one older lady put it recently:

“If it weren’t for Eddy Schertz and his plane, there would be a lot fewer mothers and children in our village.”

CAPTION: One of the Alas de Esperenza – Wings of Hope – seaplanes, above, sits by a makeshift dock at an isolated Amazon River fishing village that depends on the Quebec organization’s services for contact with the outside world.

Below, villagers assist in the unloading of medical and other supplies, material which offers the difference between life and death to the Peruvian villagers.

The priority of the flying service, taken over by the Quebec Wings of Hope organization in 1972, is medical emergencies but an average week for 31-year-old pilot Edward Schertz might take him to the borders of Ecuador, Colombia or Brazil.

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