This airline turned its jet into a flying hospital to bring Ukraine's wounded soldiers to Europe
Normally, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) aircraft carry excited holidaymakers and business travellers on board. But the crew on flight SK718, which connects Norway’s capital Oslo and Rzeszow in Poland, have been greeting unusual passengers in the past year: wounded soldiers and critically ill patients from Ukraine. Located 70 km from the Ukrainian border, Rzeszow is a strategic hub where trade between the besieged nation and the rest of the world continues. The plane is a special mission flight in collaboration with the European Union, with passengers onboard picked up in Rzeszow and sent to hospitals across Europe. The Boeing 737 carrying out the mission has been repurposed to become a flying ambulance, fitted with ventilators, blood transfusion equipment and antibiotics.
"In this plane, we have a respirator down below the floor, we have syringe pumps and we have monitor and suction and oxygen, all equipment to be able to treat a high intensive care unit patient. And this is, in easy words, this is a small hospital in the air," said Håkon Asak, Lieutenant Colonel of the Norwegian Army Medical Corps.
Two-thirds of the seats on the aircraft have been replaced with hospital beds and doctors and nurses from the Norwegian armed forces keep checking on the patients on board.
Mykola Fedirko was injured in the trenches in the Donetsk region two months ago. He was flown to Copenhagen for treatment. "It's the first time I've been on a plane. I would have liked to go to Denmark under normal circumstances, on holiday, for example, not to go to hospital because of trauma," said the 22-year-old Ukrainian soldier.
Fedirko was dropped off in Denmark and about thirty other patients landed in the Netherlands, Germany and Norway over the course of two days.
'It gets personal' Set up at the beginning of the war, the operation has been carried out 52 times in the last year. According to Norwegian broadcaster TV2, there have been more than 630 Ukrainian patients medevaced.
Oslo has just announced that the programme will continue until at least August.
The project is "unprecedented at the continental level" and was set up "in record time". "We established this scheme at the request of Ukraine... to alleviate the burden on the Ukrainian hospitals," said Juan Escalante of the EU's Emergency Response Coordination Centre.
The extraordinary nature of this mission has left its mark on the staff on board. "It’s quite relieving, relieving leaving the patients at the airport and having the teams taking care of them. But because for all of us, it’s quite hard to transport the patients in these conditions all the time, it gets personal," said Asak.
The pilots in the cockpit keep the cabin door open during flights to be accessible to the passengers. They say they appreciate the encounters with those who have survived the war. "It's one thing to have wounded soldiers but children who suffer... that always makes a strong impression on people," said Arve Thomassen, a pilot at SAS.
"When you fly passengers down to the Mediterranean for a sun bath, that’s a normal business and it’s very common to do that. This gives a much more challenging perspective of the whole operation. And also makes us a little humble to do this mission. And actually, I'm very proud to do it," he added.
The bombing of hospitals, maternity wards and medical storage units means almost half a million people a month are deprived of medical care, the Norwegian authorities estimate.
Some 859 health facilities in Ukraine have been attacked since the Russian invasion, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
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