The amazing Biafran airlift — Heroics in the sky and on the ground

July 6, 2018
Photo by Peter Williams

In the late 1960s, a rebellion in West Africa resulted in brutal warfare, the world’s first televised famine, an incredible humanitarian intervention, and the birth of several aid organizations — including Concern Worldwide.

Crisis In West Africa

On July 6th 1967, an uprising began in Eastern Nigeria with the aim of gaining independence for the state of Biafra and its mostly Igbo population. The military government moved swiftly to crush the rebellion, and what followed was a two-and-a- half year war that would result in at least two million civilian deaths. The toll would have undoubtedly been higher were it not for the efforts of an ad hoc coalition of international humanitarian organizations and the establishment of what became known as the Biafran airlift.

B&W people at feeding center

A feeding center north of Owerri in Biafra. Photo: Peter Williams

The secession attempt met with an unmerciful response, displacing millions of people who became further isolated by the government’s blockade of food, medicine, and basic necessities.

“Children were crying… people were dying all around us… parents were crying as they buried their children.”

In 1968, famine followed. Aengus Finucane, one of hundreds of Irish Catholic priests based in Biafra at the time, recalled the daily scenes that faced him and his colleagues. “Each morning when we came out of the house there were people gathered everywhere, begging for help. Children were crying… people were dying all around us… parents were crying as they buried their children. I knew a lot of these people, because I had lived among them in the parish. As a young priest I was not prepared to deal with this — it was unimaginable.”

Black and white photo of Aengus Finucane

Concern’s Fr. Aengus Finucane in an undated image from the archive.

Images of starving, skeletal children flashed across televisions and newspaper front pages worldwide. In Ireland, they resonated deeply, painful reminders of Ireland’s own Great Hunger.

The Response

John and Kay O’Loughlin Kennedy, a young economist and an insurance underwriter, respectively, opened their home in Dublin to a small group of people who were alarmed by the sheer human suffering in Biafra, and who, like them, wanted to do something. Also invited to attend the meeting were two local activists from Biafra, who gave a firsthand account of the problems on the ground. Within weeks, the group launched a first-of-its-kind fundraising campaign in Ireland. It was initially known as Send One Ship — SOS.

black and white of cargo ship

Columcille leaving Dublin for Biafra, September 6th, 1968.

As the money flowed in, the group enlisted experts to help engineer a solution for the delivery of life-saving relief supplies around the blockade. First, they secured a boat — the Columcille — that would be loaded with food and medical items, and sailed to the island of Sao Tomé, off West Africa. From there, they relayed the goods via a constant flow of bold, night-time airlifts.

Loading of Joint Church Aid relief supplies on island of Sao Tomé. Photo: Peter Williams

The cross-denominational Joint Church Aid (JCA), headed by Father Tony Byrne, had secured a small fleet of old cargo planes and a crew of daredevil pilots, who gave it the name “Jesus Christ Airline.” Some of these airmen had previously been involved in delivering arms to both sides in the conflict and the operation was extremely controversial, drawing much international criticism and close media scrutiny. As the airlift continued, pilots from all over the world would donate their time and skills to the operation. Some would not survive.

propeller plane with pilot looking out window

A humanitarian aid flight prepares to take off from Sao Tomé airport.

Concern is born

Back in Ireland, the public responded with amazing generosity and a new organization was formed to raise and manage funds and the delivery of aid. Africa Concern was to be an non-denominational (and ultimately secular) agency — soon establishing its own flights into Biafra from Libreville in Gabon, to complement the airlift based at Sao Tomé. Returning aircraft would bring malnourished children to be treated at feeding centers run by volunteers.

Jack Finucane, from a 1968 magazine ad for the Biafra appeal.

On the receiving end, manning a rudimentary airstrip hidden deep in the bush at Uli, were an assorted and enterprising team, who became highly adept at receiving and unloading night flights, under almost constant attack from the Nigerian air force. Among them were Aengus and Jack Finucane, brothers from Limerick who were members of the Spiritan order. Each day, the Nigerians would bomb the airstrip, which was only 75 feet wide and less than 1200 feet long. Each night, the Biafrans would patch it up and once again guide in the intrepid JCA pilots, amid virtual radio silence and minimal light.

Feeding Centre

Aengus Finucane at a feeding center in Gabon, 1969.

Aengus Finucane often boarded the flights himself, demanding efficient and speedy loading and delivery, regularly ferrying out the most seriously ill children on the return. Part of his tough-guy reputation derives from an encounter with a thief who attempted to rob a Concern delivery truck. Aengus reacted like the star rugby player he had been in his youth, tackling the thief to the ground. His relentlessness was otherwise non-violent, as he led by “conversation not confrontation,” with healthy doses of self-deprecation and humor.

Meanwhile, Jack Finucane helped to mastermind a vast and complex distribution network,  reaching millions of starving and sick people with food and medical supplies. Although the whole operation would go into the annals of history for its scale and reach, the people of Biafra suffered terribly and by the time the war ended an estimated two million civilians were dead as a result of the conflict.

Picture of movement permit for Biafra with photo of Fr. Jack Finucane SSP

A movement permit issued to Fr. Jack Finucane by the breakaway government of Biafra on April 9th, 1968. The Government of Nigeria heading has been hastily replaced.

A perilous mission

Africa Concern and other organizations involved in the airlift faced continuous pressure from authorities at home and abroad over their involvement in what was perceived to be the illegal breach of a sovereign government’s airspace and territory. But the operation continued relentlessly. For a time, Biafra became the center of world fascination.

“No author could have invented such a cast-list.”

Renowned novelist Frederick Forsyth was one of those who went there to cover the story as a journalist. His foreword to Fr. Tony Byrne’s 1997 book, Airlift To Biafra, sets the scene: “Towards the crisis poured a welter of outsiders trying to help, or just help themselves: politicians, journalists, camera-men, philanthropists, doctors, pilots and pundits; along with mercenaries, arms dealers, oilmen, conmen and call-girls. No author could have invented such a cast-list.”

A damaged aircraft at the airstrip in Uli, codenamed “Annabelle.” Photo: edujandon.com

In two years, the JCA flew 5,314 missions, carrying 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid as Nigerian anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes tried — and mostly failed — to bring them down. Twenty-five aircrew were lost. It has been described as the largest non-combatant airlift ever and there’s little doubt that many hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.

Children stand beside Africa Concern truck

An undated image of an Africa Concern truck in Biafra.

The end for Biafra

As the 1960’s came to an end it became clear that the cause of Biafran independence was lost. The Nigerian government swept through the breakaway state, securing victory on January 15th, 1970. Many of those  involved in the humanitarian effort were swept up in the aftermath of the war. Some, including Jack Finucane, were imprisoned  for a period —  most were banished from Nigeria. Many of these veterans of Biafra would use their experience there to manage and support a host of other aid operations around the world in the decades that followed.

Abanadoned cargo planes

Two constellation aircraft involved in the Biafran airlift lie abandoned at the airport in Sao Tomé decades later. Photo: Jakob Ringler, Connie Survivors

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