News of her death brought sorrow flowing through our home. Heather Stewart, a frontier pilot in a field dominated almost exclusively by male counterparts, lived one of those remarkable lives that only a place like Africa could produce. It was repeatedly like something from the movies. In a land so vast, barren and dangerous, she journeyed, lingered, and faced mortality head-on for the sake of the seemingly hopeless southern Sudanese situation and the non-governmental agencies seeking to help. Jane and I were on many of those journeys and returned from that remarkable land with tales of the valiant woman’s exploits.
She was nicknamed “All Weather Heather” for her willingness to lift off when other pilots remained sensibly and safely on the ground. But in those hours when she flew and others didn’t, remarkable acts of human ingenuity and bravery were accomplished and recognized only by those fortunate enough to be on those flights with Heather. On numerous occasions, she flew us into regions where marauding Government of Sudan militias and army units were seeking to destroy southern Sudanese villages and any humanitarians along with them. She knew the odds, and rather than weigh them she more often confronted them on behalf of the sheer scale of human need in those she was attempting to reach.
Jane and I recounted many stories of our adventures with the redoubtable Heather, including her treating us to lunch in Nairobi on the occasion of our successfully getting our adopted daughter Abuk out of Sudan and into Kenya. But the one that remained with us ended up saving a life that would never have survived if Heather hadn’t made a challenging decision.
We were on her Caravan airplane ready to leave and find a group of slaves we were attempting to reach in another region when a number of men came to the plane carrying a young man who had been shot a number of times during a raid. He was barely conscious, had lost copious amounts of blood, and only had a few hours to live in an area where no medical assistance was available.
“I’ll fly him to Lokichoggio (Loki, as it was affectionately named) and the Red Cross hospital there,” Heather said. Loki was on the Kenyan border and possessed an airstrip used by the UN for food drops and also the largest field hospital in the world. “But I need someone to come with me while I fly the plane,” Heather urged. Jane and I volunteered for the task and in the end, it was decided that the young man’s mother should come with us.
Words will never describe what was endured on that flight. Blood continued to run down the floor of the craft as we sought to administer morphine and constantly check his vital signs. We felt so helpless. At one point he opened his eyes and his mother wept at the sight. He had a huge wound under his arm and the blood was escaping rapidly. “There’s duct tape in the rear compartment,” Heather yelled from the front, and we wrapped the wound in it, watching as the bleeding somehow stopped.
Five hours later we arrived in Loki, where the boy and his mother were whisked off to the hospital from the airstrip (a year later we happened upon him and he had recovered, though with the loss of the use of one arm). Heather invited us to the hospitality camp she ran there, just off the single airstrip, treating us to a sumptuous dinner and her best room. Even there, exhausted from the flight, she consistently looked out for others.
Heather Stewart spent years flying people like us into some of the riskiest situations and on many of those occasions chose to park her plane with us for the night in case something serious were to occur. She slept on the ground with us, endured the heat, the food, the massive scope of human suffering, and the shared grief at the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands. She helped us fight slavery, assisted others in flying in emergency supplies and workers, and constantly used her Loki camp to assuage the pains, heal the wounds, and recover the spirits.
“There are no heroes in life,” one of the Game of Thrones characters said, “only monsters win.” Thanks to Heather Stewart many learned what a fabrication that kind of sentiment was. In a world where only an airplane could splice together humanity’s hopes and tragic need in a timely fashion, this woman eventually outlasted the monsters, when the great civil war ended a few years later. If it’s true that great heroes require great sorrows and tragedy, Heather Stewart confronted her share and survived to tell marvelous tales of the greatness of the human spirit in a dark age.
Most of her heroism will never be known unless all of those hundreds of people who flew with her in a darkness sprinkled with marvelous pinpricks of wonderful human endeavour gathered together and unfolded the tales. But that will never happen because the world came to Sudan in those years and then disappeared.
But Heather remained, infused with the need to ensure that humanity triumphed over inhumanity. That was her only real power. She became a hero of her times, not because of wealth, power or might, but because she chose the path of human service that ennobles the soul and gives humanity another chance. Thank you, Heather, for that hope.
Note: A special thanks to Canada’s former ambassador to South Sudan, Nicholas Coghlan, for his suggestion of the title and who both knew and appreciated Heather.