Two French pilots, José Benavente and Benoit Micolon, have bought a plane with their own savings to rescue migrants at sea.
Their first mission on May 12 proved a turning point for rescue efforts at sea when Benavente and Micolon spotted two boats.
According to NBC, the first was empty. It had been marked “SAR 12/05/18,” indicating the migrants had been rescued earlier in the day. The other, a Zodiac inflatable boat with over 100 people on board, was in the midst of its own rescue operation.
After six hours and 870 miles in the air, Benavente and Micolon returned to Malta satisfied.
“Today was rich in emotion,” they posted on the Facebook page of their aid group, Pilotes Volontaires (Volunteer Pilots). “After three months of preparation, we were finally able to carry out our first surveillance flight.”
Benavente, 49, has been involved in humanitarian work for 25 years. He told NBC News he’d been mulling how to put his passion for flying to good use since first hearing of migrants dying at sea some 15 years ago while stationed in Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The haunting image of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015, spurred him into action and he began following the work of nonprofit groups in the Mediterranean.
Pilotes Volontaires made their first flight over the Mediterranean on May 12. Isabelle Serro/Pilotes Volontaires
They named their single-engined MCR 4 plane “Colibri” — “Hummingbird” — after a Native American legend in which a hummingbird tries to stop a forest fire by picking up water and putting it, drop by drop, onto the burning trees. Asked by other animals what it is doing, the little bird replies: “I’m doing what I can.”
The friends raced against the clock to get their venture off the ground by May, when favorable weather conditions bring a surge in the number of migrants boats — and with it, the death toll.