Ukraine Help: "I know what they're going through"
Travis Kelley helps Olena and Wasyl flee from Ukraine. This is the record of a dramatic and emotional rescue operation.
Mainz-Finthen, 07 April, 06:18pm
Travis Kelley extends his hand to Olena P. Step by step, the Ukrainian takes the stairs out of the plane and soon stands on the airfield in Mainz-Finthen. She takes a deep breath and swallows. She and her close friend Wasyl are safe. They got out of Ukraine. Out of the war zone. Travis gently strokes her arm. His eyes fill with tears. He bends his arm. Wasyl hooks under and lets herself be led to the terminal. Olena and Wasyl are blind.
Without Travis Kelley, Boehringer Ingelheim employee and co-organizer of the "Ukraine Air Rescue", an association that has built an airlift to the Polish-Ukrainian border, and the pilots Pascal Stadelmann and Manos Radisoglou, Olena and Wasyl would likely not have made it out of the crisis region. Five people who did not know each other have sacrificed their time, risked their safety and trusted each other unconditionally. They have each done heroic things in their own way. And yet, until a few hours ago, this rescue was anything but certain.
46 hours before landing
Olena and Wasyl are sitting in the air raid shelter in Western Ukraine. They hear the impact of rockets. With each detonation, they wince. The two friends are from the east of the country, they lived not far from Donetsk, one of the most contested cities in Ukraine. Olena and Wasyl were hesitant to leave their home, even when friends and family had long since left. But where should they go? Their visual impairments make options even more limited. As rocket fire continues to mount, it’s clear there is no alternative. They flee by train to the west – towards Lviv - , but here, too, the danger of war is becoming increasingly real.
Airlift to Ukraine to Help Refugees
For more than a week, Travis has been doing everything in his power to fly Olena and Wasyl out of their country. Patient and aid organizations had turned to Travis after learning that the Boehringer Ingelheim employee was organizing rescue flights. With pilot friends, he had founded the "Ukraine Air Rescue": an airlift to the Ukrainian border, on which pilots voluntarily transport relief goods and bring Ukrainian refugees to Germany. Travis is making calls. He gets a driver and pilots; he collects medicines and supplies, orders a plane and the necessary take-off and landing rights. He works to the point of exhaustion and beyond. He knows that Olena and Wasyl need him.
21 hours before landing
Travis stares into the void. He shakes his head. "It's a nightmare," he whispers. Everything was organized. He had procured a driver who, despite all the risk, would drive Olena and Wasyl from the war zone to the Polish border where he would hand them over to safe custody. Someone Travis can trust; to whom he can entrust the fate of Olena and Wasyl. And now this: The driver has been infected with the coronavirus. The whole rescue operation threatens to fail. Travis picks up the phone again. He will work through most of the night.
11 hours before landing
Pilots, Pascal and Manos, lift the last aid packages into the two aircraft that are heading for the crisis area. The pilots loaded a total of 1300 kilograms of relief supplies for Ukraine. These include insulin, surgical masks, but also body bags. Pascal and Manos clap each other, wishing each other a good flight. "See you in Rzeszów."
When the 31-year-old Pascal takes a seat in his pilot's seat, he first checks the aircraft systems and contacts the tower. Six years ago, he completed his pilot training at SWISS. He flies full-time for his employer – and up to 30 hours a week on a voluntary basis for humanitarian purposes. Pascal studied social work and then supported refugees in asylum issues. Helping is in his DNA. Like his colleague Radisoglou, he flies across the Mediterranean for Seawatch to locate shipwrecked people. When Travis asks him if he can fly to the Polish-Ukrainian border, he doesn't hesitate for a second. "Every human life counts," he says as he starts the engine.
6 hours before landing
Olena and Wasyl are out of Ukraine. Travis was able to get a replacement driver that night. In the morning, during a ceasefire, they leave Lviv. They wait at the border, have to show their papers, answer questions. Then the border guards let them pass. Time is pressing, actually they should have been at the airport long ago. But under these circumstances, little goes according to plan.
They are safe - even if that safety feels fleeting here in Rzeszów, Poland, only 100 kilometers from the border. The regional airport has been seized by NATO. Air defense systems are set up to the left and right of the runways. Troop transports of the US Army and the German Air Force roll over the airfield.
Support for Patients
Meanwhile, Pascal and Manos unload the planes. In two hours, they need to take off again. This time, Olena and Wasyl, three other wheelchair-bound refugees and five other refugees, including a child, from Ukraine will be onboard. Manos reaches for his mobile phone. Olena and Wasyl were on their way, but the others have been delayed. Manos should get ready for the departure, Travis instructs, Pascal will wait for the others on site – as long as necessary.
4 hours before landing
Olena and Wasyl tighten their straps. Manos hands them earplugs. Then he starts the engines. Four hours and 566 miles in headwinds to travel before touching down in Mainz. When the plane takes off, the tension is palpable - no one speaks, everyone is deep in thought.
Olena and Wasyl sit silently in their seats. They are happy and grateful to be brought to safety, so they put it on record before departure. But the uncertainty about how things will continue, with them and their home country, worries them.
07 April, 18:18: Landing in Mainz-Finthen
The plane lands on time safely. Manos hugs Travis. A sigh of relief. They did it. Again. Together, the two help Olena and Wasyl out of the plane. It is already dark over Mainz when the refugees leave the airport by car and are driven to a shelter in the region with special accommodations for the visually impaired.
5 hours and 17 minutes after landing
The mobile phone vibrates. It’s Travis. He writes that Pascal has finally landed safely in Mainz with the rest of the patients and refugees.
"Such a great feeling," Travis says. “It makes all the planning and a 17-hour day worth it.”
Humble words from a special man.