Air Patrol: Rich to the rescue of forgotten Colombia | International

Álvaro Soto, pilot of the Colombian air patrol.
Álvaro Soto, pilot of the Colombian air patrol.Courtesy of the CAP

The rich to the rescue. Guaymaral is a private airport for the Colombian elite located in the north of Bogotá. Only the big businessmen and the families with the most money in the country can have their planes parked there. Most pop open bottles of champagne while shopping in Miami. A few, and this story is about them, fly to remote places, where the State barely reaches, to operate on peasants for cataracts or bring glasses to children in villages.

Many of these men have a hobby of flying in their free time to their farms in the countryside. Some of them, like 71-year-old Hans Timcke, decided they wanted his plane to also be able to serve other people in need. In Colombia, there are still many places that can only be reached by air. The people who live in these territories do not have access to the health system and many have never seen a doctor. It has been precisely private pilots like Timcke who for many years have brought them closer to the toilets.

For a lifetime, Timcke worked as a commercial cargo pilot. However, his love of aviation led him to buy a small plane together with three friends. A device like the one he pilots, with three seats, today would cost $163,000 and one hour of flight costs $200.

At first, the owners of the plane only used it to make private family flights to enjoy a rural house they had in Villavicencio. They still do, and from time to time the plane serves to take the family to paradisiacal places where commercial airlines do not arrive. However, 47 years ago, when Timcke met the founders of the Air Patrol and joined them, the Air Patrol is also good for many other things.

Plane belonging to the Colombian air patrol.
Plane belonging to the Colombian air patrol.Courtesy of the CAP

The patrol is an organization that has been flying to the most remote parts of the country for more than half a century to provide free medical care to people living in extreme poverty. “The owners of the planes are the great businessmen of this country, and the patrol is their hobby,” explains the director of the Patrol, Pamela Estrada.

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“We unite their passion for flying and their desire to serve. It is his time to give back to the country everything he has given them, ”says Estrada. For Timcke, reaching the most remote corners of Colombian territory, where the government does not even often arrive, has been the opportunity to learn about a reality that he had only seen from time to time on television, he explains by phone from the Guaymaral airport after a flight.

Throughout these years, he remembers having been able to see how a disease that is treated in a matter of days in big cities, such as a hernia, can become a heavy burden that weighs down a person for years where the health system does not reach.

“I very much remember a trip to the Colombian Pacific where the surgical group performed cataract operations on the inhabitants of the area. I remember how surprised they were to regain their sight after many years of seeing the world in a blur. They did not believe it, ”says Timcke, who explains that these have been the moments in which he has most valued his life of privilege.

The Patrol has been working in Colombia for 55 years, but it has not always been dedicated to the same thing. In 1966 it was created as a search group for lost planes to support the El Dorado airport, which was beginning to make international flights. At this moment, they have 70 pilots and more than 300 volunteer health workers with whom they carry out more than a dozen medical brigades a year. “It is the largest private fleet in the Andean region dedicated to humanitarian work,” Estrada highlights.

The medical missions they carry out are chosen according to the needs of the municipalities that ask them for help and the donors that support them. “There are companies like Colmédica that don’t care where we go, but others like the oil companies have very defined towns where they want to go and help,” says the director.

An ambulance plane belonging to the Colombian air patrol.
An ambulance plane belonging to the Colombian air patrol.Courtesy of the CAP

The procedure is very simple. They summon their pilots, arrive at the municipality, set up a hospital in a matter of hours, serve more than 800 people in two days, and fly back to Bogotá. One of the great objectives of the Patrol is to help combat child malnutrition. For this reason, they make special brigades focused on pediatrics and nutrition in places that have infant mortality rates higher than the national average, such as remote areas of the Colombian Pacific.

The director of health personnel, Lorena Calderón, is in charge of coordinating the 300 medical volunteers who go to the sessions. “Each trip costs an average of 200 million pesos, and thanks to this we have been able to improve the quality of life of thousands of people who do not have health centers in their region.” Throughout its history, the Patrol has received many awards, including the King of Spain Award for Human Rights in 2017.

For pilot Álvaro Soto, 80, being part of the Patrol has given him the opportunity to return to places where, as an official of the Ministry of the Environment, he developed his work as an anthropologist. “With my plane, we were able to prove that if you take a boat on the Putumayo, you can get to Buenos Aires, Argentina, by river. This allowed us to carry out the America expedition that verified the fluvial viability of South America”. The work of the patrol has left a deep mark in Colombia: “Imagine that 50 doctors arrive in a town where none had ever set foot,” explains Soto, who fell in love with planes since he first looked at the sky and saw one. flying.

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