ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The American Boeing 747 had been flying south over Ethiopia for more than an hour, covering 600 miles from the Red Sea at the nation's northernmost tip, across barren desert and bone-dry, rust-colored mountains indented with narrow, deep valleys.
Visible below were scattered settlements on high plateaus and in valleys where perhaps 200,000 people have died from famine in the last year alone, where thousands continue to starve and die each week in primitive huts or en route on the network of trails seeking help.
The incredible harshness of the landscape--not a sign of water or a patch of green--makes it remarkable that human life is possible there at all.
"There it is! There it is! Addis Ababa!" exclaimed Hal Ewing, 41, of Sumpter, S.C., captain of the Flying Tigers air freighter, as the 747 descended through puffy cumulus clouds. Ethiopia's 7,625-foot-high capital suddenly burst into view amid a patchwork quilt of dry, brown farms .
The plane was on a mercy flight sponsored by the Los Angeles-headquartered Flying Tigers and its 6,000 worldwide employees. The 747 carried 234,771 pounds of medical supplies, food and clothing valued at $1,066,537, a gift from thousands of Americans across the nation to victims of one of the greatest calamities of all times, Ethiopia's famine of the 1980s.
A few minutes later Ewing and his crew in the cockpit, First Officer Mick O'Connor, 32, of Key Largo, Fla., and Second Officer Paul Zahner, 31, of Danbury, Conn., landed the huge jet, using all but a few feet of the narrow, short runway with a hump in its middle. At the end of the airstrip lay the remains of wrecked Soviet planes that overshot the runway and ended at the bottom of steep cliffs, testimony to the airstrip's tricky nature.
The Flying Tigers Lifelift for Ethiopian Relief had flown 7,400 statute miles from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Addis Ababa in 16 hours, 48 minutes counting a 3-hour, 50-minute refueling stop in Brussels.
For Marilyn Folkes, 35, traffic agent for Flying Tigers at J.F.K., who as fund-raising chairman for the Lifelift flight played a key role in its success, the arrival was one of enormous joy. During the stop in Brussels, while walking through the 185-foot-long main cargo deck loaded with tons of relief supplies, she commented:
"I am happy knowing the medicine will help save thousands of lives, prevent a lot of blindness and stop the spread of disease, that the food aboard the plane will provide needed nourishment, that thousands will be a little warmer because of these blankets and clothes . . . ."
For Marilyn Folkes, hunger is no stranger. She has worried about the starving people of Ethiopia for years. She has sponsored two Ethiopian children since 1976 at a cost of $60 a month. She has lectured about hunger in Africa in New York-area churches, primarily black churches, urging involvement in aid programs.
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Then last November, not long after a BBC film crew jarred the conscience of the world with its startling footage of starving Ethiopians, Folkes decided: "The bottom line is I am my brother's keeper. I wouldn't want other people to ignore me." So, three months ago she took two weeks' leave from her job and flew to Ethiopia to do what she could in the camps set up for the victims of the famine.
During this, her second flight to Ethiopia, she told of the agony she witnessed: "I have not been the same person since. I feel absolutely miserable inside every time I think about it. I saw thousands of people lying on the dirt motionless, nothing more than skin and bones, obviously going to die. I saw physicians pick and choose who was going to live because of limited food supplies.
"I saw thousands of emaciated children, their faces covered with flies, staring into space. At Alamata in the refugee camp I saw the Mother Teresa Sisters of Charity comforting dying people, helping them to die with some sense of dignity. I have had nightmares ever since, waking up weeping," Folkes said as she wiped away tears.
Now, she was back to see firsthand the distribution of aid flown in by her fellow employees, back again to visit the sorrow, starvation, sickness and death at the refugee camps.
Within minutes after the 747 landed, cargo doors opened and the offloading operation began under the direction of Jochem Derschow, 29, of Amsterdam, Flying Tigers' European load master and charter operations supervisor who boarded the plane in Brussels.
Ethiopian cargo handlers moved the 86,751 pounds of medical supplies, 32,754 pounds of food and 115,266 pounds of clothing and blankets to a nearby section of the tarmac where trucks belonging to American-based relief agencies were waiting to transfer the mate rial to famine camps 150 to 400 miles from the capital city. Some of the supplies would be airlifted.