Following the accidental death of a Quebec missionary who could not be saved for lack of adequate transportation, his brother, Jean Laberge, contacted the American organization Wings of Hope, specializing in the refurbishment of used aircraft. He asked this organization to provide two Cessna 206s to the Canadian Franciscans in Peru who had already briefly tried an aviation experiment with Pilot Priest Louis Bédard (Fall 2000 newsletter)
The first plane arrived in Iquitos in 1968 piloted by Guy Gervais. Bob Weninger and Eddy Schertz joined him a little later. However, the operations proved too expensive for the Franciscans. A group of Montreal businessmen, led by Noël Girard and Lionel Couture, founded in 1971 Les Ailes de l’Esperance, a non-profit and non-religious association that took charge of air operations. Two bases, Iquitos and Satipo, were established (a third in Bolivia in 1985).
For over two decades, in a difficult context (disturbed even by the terrorist activities of the “Shining Path”), Les Ailes realized countless medical evacuations, the transport of drugs, doctors, educators, school materials, aboriginal agricultural surplus etc. Wings also served the San Pablo leprosarium administered by the Sisters St Joseph Hospital.
In the jungle, one minute on a plane was a day’s walk. The trip from Iquitos to Estrecho took 17 days by boat … but just 1:15 by plane! Virtually every village had a landing field. In the mid-1980s, Les Ailes operated 75 tracks and a network of 60 radio sets. The fleet consisted of two Cessna 206s, two Beavers, one Otter and a twin Evangel.
Fifteen airmen followed each other over the years, including Jean Valiquette, Michel Alexandre, Robert Bélisle, Louis Schink, Pierre Lajeunesse, Phoebe Kingscote, Bruce Edwards, Andre Gingras, Denis Prévost and Jean-François Taschereau. The latter, who became president after a decade as a pilot, signed in 1994 the agreement ceding the autonomy of operations to Alas de Esperanza del Peru, Peruvian recovery formed by the Quebec organization. Alas de Esperanza continued to operate a Cessna 206, financially supported by The Wings of Hope.
An epic that lasts! (Fall 2001 newsletter)
A bit of history on air humanitarian aid in Quebec
Early on, the speed of the plane and its ability to go where no other means of transportation can travel makes it an ideal vehicle for assisting remote communities. In Canada, the first medical evacuations by plane date back to 1920 (one of these flights taking place in James Bay). In the 1930s, special editions of Fox Moth and Waco were already available as ambulance aircraft. With a Waco of this type, Erskine Leigh Capreol (future director of the Dorval airport) transports hundreds of patients to hospitals in the south for Austin Airways.
In Quebec, Father Joseph Thibault of Grandes-Bergeronnes, near Tadoussac, founded the Charlevoix-Saguenay Aviation Company in 1937, whose predominantly humanitarian purpose was to evacuate the wounded to hospitals in Chicoutimi or Rivière-du-Loup. , the sick, women experiencing difficult pregnancies. The region does not have any winter road infrastructure and only a “snowmobile” service serves somehow the communities located between La Malbaie and Les Escoumins. At the beginning, the company operates with a single plane, of the Travel Air type, piloted by Rodolphe Pagé.
Pagé alone carries more than 150 patients, rain or shine. “Always emergency flights”, says Pagé. “I was always warned when the patient was at the last extremity. We were scared of the hospital. For these people, to enter the hospital was to run to death. The service was temporarily suspended during the Second World War but resumed in 1945, offering a job opportunity to several ex-military pilots who were unemployed. Unfortunately, two years later, the fire of a hangar housing a twin engine Avro Anson is a blow to a service already in deficit and operations cease. (In the photo, Rodolphe Pagé in front of Emerillon, a plane of his manufacture).
From the very beginning, airmen are regularly confronted with situations of extreme distress, forcing them to come to the help of sick or wounded at all times. Main inhabitants of the Nordic countries, the natives learn very early to appreciate the services rendered by the plane. From now on, all that is vital comes from the sky: doctor, nurse, dentist, priest, policeman, fur trader … Fernando Vachon (one of the four brothers Vachon) evokes with emotion this little known aspect of the daily life of the first airmen:
Help Indian mothers with difficult pregnancies, in small villages lost in the snow, drive them to the hospital, land on unknown lakes with the mother and a newborn baby! It was an incredible satisfaction. On the way back, the whole village was waiting on the ice. The welcome of these Indian families is unforgettable. They insisted that the crew celebrate with them. It was necessary to push them back to take off … Without being aware of it, during the take-off, we often headed for thin ice. We had communication difficulties. We did not understand their language and we had to talk with our hands. So, we were advancing on a thin ice and they did not know how to explain it to us. That’s what they did one day. The children formed a line in front of the plane and that’s when we realized that we had to take another direction. “(In the photo, Romeo Vachon is ready to embark a wounded in 1932).
The pilot Thomas Fecteau, nephew of Arthur, agrees:
“We were supplying the Indians, transporting prospectors, surveyors, patients, monitoring forest fires, we were doing everything […] During the summer, we transported the doctors who went to visit the sick on reserves Indian, with X-ray machines. Tuberculosis was a widespread disease among Indians. In the fall, I returned to pick up the children whose test results were positive. The sick spent the winter in a sanatorium of La Tuque. I will always remember, I went to get fifteen young people who had to return to their family. There were five missing. They were dead. I had to announce the news to the families. Everyone was crying. It was a service of dedication, humanitarian, sometimes difficult on the emotions side. We were ambassadors and the only contact for these Indian populations. Often we left passengers in one place and we had to pick them up on a specific date. They should not be forgotten. They were anxiously waiting for us and the only way to find their way was the sound of the plane or a good sense of observation. We had to put the date of return in our books and check them every day. We were constantly looking for flight, eyes fixed on the ground, in case we discovered abnormal situations. It was grueling.”
(Musée de l’air et de l’espace du Québec: L’aide humanitaire)