It was officially called Joint Church Aid (JCA), initiated by Fr. Tony Byrne CSSp, but the daredevil pilots called it the “Jesus Christ Airline” with a swagger of pride and hint of awe. For almost two amazing years (1967-1970), JCA kept a small, breakaway West African state alive, refusing to allow starvation to be used as a weapon of war. It flew 5, 314 extremely dangerous missions, carrying 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid and saved millions of lives. Starting point for their flights was the former Portuguese colony Sao Tomé, less than an hour from the destination.
The lumbering DC-6s and temperamental Super Constellations flew at night from the island of Sao Tome off the coast of West Africa into a tiny airstrip carved from the dense bush without lights, skimming blind over the trees at 2,000 feet to avoid the guns and fighters of the enemy. At its peak, Uli “airport” – really just a widened road – was the busiest in all of Africa, handling up to 50 flights a night, and each flight broke some international law. Each of the old planes had its own JCA logo – two fishes, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity.
JCA lost 25 pilots and crew to the guns and bombs of the Nigerian forces intent on enforcing the Biafran blockade. The Nigerian military government of the day refused steadfastly to allow relief flights or any other form of humanitarian aid into Biafra. Thirteen of the amateur pilots — many of them priests — lost their lifes during a mission that was officially illegal, but had the blessings of the Pope.
Despite JCA’s best efforts, it is estimated some 2 million Biafrans starved to death.
After the war it was decided that due to political sensitivity, members of JCA would wait 25-30 years before telling their unique story. Fr. Byrne wrote a book in 1997 chronicling this amazing humanitarian project titled Airlift to Biafra, which is available on-line through major book sellers.