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From an empty Airbus A380 to Singapore to a 24-hour trek on the world’s first Boeing 787-10, I’ve had an opportunity to join some pretty special flights. Still, none have left me fulfilled in the same way I experienced on this week’s Norwegian 737 MAX trip to Africa.

As airline reps repeated throughout our adventure, it really was “the most important flight of the year.” And that has far less to do with the plane we flew, or even where we went — rather, it’s the 13 tons of UNICEF donations we carried onboard, enabling the United Nations Children’s Fund to save countless lives in Chad.

Loading the MAX at Copenhagen Airport (CPH)

Most of the group began the trip in Oslo (OSL), but UNICEF’s regional supply center is in Copenhagen (CPH) — we joined the flight and loaded the 26,000 pounds of cargo there.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Our aircraft was LN-BKC, a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8, delivered to the airline just two weeks ago.

Photo by Zach Honig.
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Stacks of boxes were ready to go once the plane pulled up — all that was left was for us to get everything onboard.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Norwegian CEO Bjørn Kjos, a huge proponent of the airline’s annual Fill-A-Plane campaign, loaded supplies himself, below center, along with Nikolai Astrup, Norway’s Minister of International Development, and UNICEF Norway CEO Camilla Viken.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Boxes were loaded one by one.

Photo by Zach Honig.

The majority got piled into the main cargo compartment, which was stuffed to the brim.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Then, once that and the luggage area were full, a never-ending train of boxes made its way up to the passenger cabin.

Photo by Zach Honig.
Photo by Zach Honig.

Packages were stacked high at each row, using special airplane seat cargo holders to keep everything secure.

Photo by Zach Honig.

In total, we brought along:

  • 2,000 water purifiers (providing nearly 4 million gallons of water)
  • ~60 school-in-a-box kits, with materials for ~2,300 children
  • 5,000 school bags
  • 35,000 packs of oral rehydration salts and zinc, to treat children exposed to diseases after drinking contaminated water
  • 2,000 packs of Paracetamol with 1,000 tablets each
  • 1,000 doses of antibiotics
  • 5,000 tubes of Miconazole anti-fungal cream
  • 1,000 tubes of zinc ointment
  • 1,500 doses of oral anti-fungal agent
  • 1,500 doses of diuretic medicine used for body fluid retention, renal failure and heart failure in children
  • 250 mid-upper arm circumference measuring tapes

Plus enough food to get us down to Chad, and some heavy snacks for the return, since Norwegian couldn’t get the flight catered at N’Djamena airport (NDJ) for the return.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Our 737 MAX 8 Flight to Chad

Flight DY9001 pushed back around 1:00pm, some two hours behind schedule, since loading all that gear took longer than expected.

Photo by Zach Honig.

The flight felt fairly ordinary at first — crew members came through to make sure seatbelts were buckled and bags were stowed, and Norwegian’s standard safety demo played on drop-down TVs.

Photo by Zach Honig.

The MAX 8 could easily handle the distance nonstop, thanks to its range of more than 4,000 miles, though Norwegian doesn’t fly to sub-Saharan Africa, except on the annual Fill-A-Plane mission. You can see our routing in the image below, avoiding the airspace over conflict-plagued Libya.

Photo by Norwegian Air.

Most of the passengers were gathered in the front, seated two to a row, with the exit rows and the very last row occupied as well. All remaining space was used to accommodate the supplies we carried down to Chad.

The flight deck was kept unlocked throughout our journey, and passengers were invited to swing by for a visit. We had three pilots on board — just two are required, but a third came along just in case someone ended up catching a bug in Africa, since there aren’t any reserves anywhere near NDJ.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Prior to departure, flight attendants came through with a snack and beverage service, followed by a hot meal once we were in the air.

Photo by Zach Honig.

Since much of the food wouldn’t hold up without refrigeration, we were instructed to order as much as we’d like. I had quite a feast in front of me before they even closed the door.

Photo by Zach Honig.

I didn’t need a full meal after that massive snack, but anything left over would have to go in the trash, so I decided to pick at some steak.

Photo by Zach Honig.

I also had a chance to chat with Norwegian’s CEO. It’s clear that he’s incredibly passionate about the airline’s UNICEF partnership, and was proud to be joining the group in Chad.

Photo by Zach Honig.
Norwegian Air CEO Bjørn Kjos.

Arrival at N’Djamena International Airport (NDJ)

We had planned to arrive before sunset, giving us time to snap some photos of the arrival — and begin unloading the plane before the mosquitos made an appearance in full force. Sadly, due to our delayed departure from CPH, we landed in darkness — with armed guards arriving to keep an eye on our MAX while the team figured out what to do next.

Armed guards kept a close eye on Norwegian’s MAX throughout the group’s two-day visit.

There was quite a bit of confusion when it came to how’d we’d be getting all 13 tons of cargo off the plane. Eventually, ground staff arrived, but the locals tasked with unloading didn’t have identification. Due to various security concerns, much of the group — the four journalists included — decided to stay behind to unload at NDJ.

Insects quickly filled the cabin upon arrival in Chad.

After more than two hours of unloading, we finally made our way to immigration. Our visas were verified, passports were checked against a printed list and yellow fever vaccine cards were quickly examined. And with that, we were in Chad, and the 26,000 pounds of supplies we brought along began the journey to the country’s refugee camps, where they’ll help give people a chance at a better, healthier life.

The Norwegian Air Fill-a-Plane team in Chad. Photo by Zach Honig.
The Norwegian Air Fill-a-Plane team in Chad.

There’s much more work to be done, though. TPG donated $10,000 toward filling the plane for this trip, and readers have pitched in as well — but UNICEF still desperately needs your help. As part of Norwegian’s latest campaign, the airline is offering TPG readers five sets of two round-trip Premium tickets to Europe and beyond. See Win Premium Flights to Europe From Norwegian and UNICEF for details on how to donate, and how you can enter to win.

All photos by the author except where noted. 

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