“There’s a real emergency.” The two French pilots were no longer content with doing nothing, in the face of this annual tragedy: the hundreds of men, women and children who perish in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe’s shores, now piled up in small makeshift boats. José Benavente, 49, and Benoît Micolon, 35, invested all their €130,000 savings to buy a light plane, a Dyn’Aero MCR 4S.
The objective of the two friends, founders of the non-profit organisation “Pilotes Volontaires”, is to provide aerial observation support to the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) carrying out rescue operations at sea.
They left Annemasse, in the Alpine Haute-Savoie region of eastern France, on April 30 on board the plane they’ve named “Colibri”, and flew to Malta. They now hope to take off on their first search mission quickly.
“In this part of the Mediterranean, more than 3,000 people die each year. We had to do something,” Benavente, who spent several years working for NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Euronews. “We know that NGOs who are active in this zone encounter difficulties in terms of observation and scouting, mainly because of the nature of these dinghies, namely small boats floating just above sea level which are absolutely not designed for this type of crossing. They are prone to sink without anyone noticing.”
Benavente and Micolon put their joint savings into buying the plane and adapting it in order to be able to stay in the air for as long as possible. The search area off the Libyan coast north of Tripoli is a rectangle 150 km long by 50 km wide and is known for the number of dinghies carrying migrants setting out to sea.
Now in Malta, they hope to carry out their first mission on Friday. Bad weather is forecast to clear and they expect a large number of boats to set sail — and potentially get into trouble.
“Our operation is attached to a rescue plan already in place and coordinated by the MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center), based in Rome. Therefore we are in strict contact with all the bodies present in the area. When we go out on patrol above this zone, if we locate dinghies that are in trouble, we will use a satellite system we have on board the plane to communicate the geographical coordinates of these vessels to the MRCC. It will then take the decision to contact boats which are able to come to the aid of these dinghies in distress,” said Benavente.
“We know that the period from April onwards is particularly deadly in this area. For us, there was no time to lose. It’s a real emergency.”
The two friends have taken time off work for their humanitarian mission. With enough funds only for a very limited period, they hope that donations — possible via their website — will allow their operation to be extended. Around 10 pilots are thought to be ready to take up the reins.
“It’s highly probable that more than one plane will be needed. Now, nothing is certain, we’ll begin with this one,” Benavente told Euronews. “As for the frequency of our flights, everything will depend on the weather conditions. We already know from experience that during the good season, when the weather is favourable, the needs are going to be enormous and potentially on a daily basis.”