A Cessna and sass get aid to Aceh

Susi Pudjiastuti and her husband circumvent Indonesia's bureaucracy and water buffaloes to help out.

Susi Pudjiastuti, an Indonesian businesswoman, smiles broadly as her Cessna light aircraft springs into the skies above North Sumatra, ferrying a cargo of food, medicine, and water to the shattered west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province.

Sitting in a muddy tent beside a little-used hangar, the husky-voiced Susi cajoles, coaxes, and pleads with local companies and politicians to provide cargoes for a plane owned by her own company, PT ASI Pudjiastuti Aviation.

Susi and her pilot husband, Christian von Strombeck, have been leading a maverick relief effort, flying emergency supplies to hundreds of victims of the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami, often bending the rules along the way. "You've got to be crazy to get things done in this country," she says.

Not all of the thousands of volunteers hoping to help with the relief efforts have Susi's contacts - or the defiant spirit of a dropout rebel who made her own way to the top. She counts among her friends an influential general, a former minister, and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Those in a hurry here must bypass procedures and rely on personal contacts. "I hate politics," she says. "But I have friends in all the political parties."

Susi and Christian have financed the operation largely themselves, ferrying in medical supplies, food, water, and relief workers to disaster zones such as Meulaboh, the city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami.

Their two light Cessna aircrafts (of only seven in Indonesia), can land on small or damaged airstrips inaccessible to the many giant C-130 Hercules aircraft now languishing in Medan's airport. "Air Susi," the company's working name, has been flying five or six flights a day for the past week.

Although Susi Air can only carry up to 1,000 cubic feet of cargo, it is badly needed in a province where the tsunami has left an official 94,000 dead. Indonesia says already 270,000 displaced people are living in camps. The number may rise to up to one million.

In a setback to the relief effort Tuesday, the main runway in Banda Aceh was closed temporarily after a Boeing 737 relief plane hit a herd of water buffalo. No one was hurt and workers removed the cargo plane from the runway later. But other relief planes were grounded for much of the day. Susi's Cessnas have thus far proved nimble enough to dodge buffaloes on other airstrips. In the interim, much of the relief effort was carried out by helicopters - mainly based on US Navy vessels.

As the $2 billion international relief effort lumbers into action, volunteers like Susi are leaping bureaucratic hurdles to deliver aid.

Susi has left behind 700 employees and a marine products business with close to $10 million a year in sales to run the private rescue mission.

The company is forgoing commercial charter rates in North Sumatra of up to $1,000 per flying hour. Susi occasionally offers free flights to some relief organizations like the Red Cross, and charges others enough to keep the service running.

"If noone helped, I could go bankrupt," she says after the national power utility chartered her plane, allowing it operate for another few days.

Appreciative text messages flood in on her cellphone from those who have heard of Susi's efforts. "I was heartened by your actions, thank u for helping them," read one message from Singapore. "May god bless u," read another.

The independent-minded Susi is impatient with bureaucratic delays and impediments. She scolded local officials when her plane was left stranded at an airport in North Sumatra after flying for several hours from the island of Java. She then called in favors from friends in high places to get landing permission on isolated islands.

"I don't want to be controlled," she says, fending off government offers to fund her operations. She refused a cabinet minister a seat on her airplane, preferring instead to give the space to relief workers or crates of medicine.

Seeing early images of tsunami-struck Sri Lanka and Thailand on CNN, Susi and Christian said they had thought they might "fly a few crates up," to Aceh province. Their apprehension and sense of dread grew with little news from Aceh for the first day after the disaster.

Their Cessnas were the first aircraft to fly over shattered coastal areas, and cities, surveying the damage. Christian brought the first outside contact to islands such as the island of Simeulue, which was moved sideways by the quake.

On Dec. 29, he flew over the isolated city of Meulaboh, where half of the city's 40,000 are now believed dead. He assessed a deserted and earthquake-damaged runway from the air, still crisscrossed by giant cracks, finally coming to earth on "about 25 percent" of the 1900-foot landing strip. Susi Air stepped up its efforts as the full scale of the destruction became clear.

As Susi coordinated the plane flights, soliciting donations for the victims, a Western aid agency appealed to her to rent out her plane, an offer she was only too glad to consider.

Susi has been a maverick since she dropped out of school in 1983 at the age of 17. Police had called her in for questioning after printing political T-shirts, forbidden in an Indonesia ruled by authoritarian leader Suharto. Growing disillusioned with formal education, she decided to set up her own business. "School wasn't really my place," she says, "they think too slowly."

Now in her third marriage, the mother of three laughs loudly as she says she is "not considered a good example of an Indonesian woman." Several women's magazines have dropped interest in her, she says, since they "heard what I'm like."

After dropping out, Susi built a business buying and selling fish and shrimp from farmers in distant areas and selling them in cities and restaurants. After meeting her husband, Christian, a German aerospace engineer, the couple dreamed together of buying planes that would allow them to transport fish from nets in remote islands in Indonesia to restaurants in Singapore and Hong Kong. Donating the services of the two Cessnas, which they bought in February 2004, was a natural step.

Watching police helicopters stand idle nearby, she says the relief effort is poorly coordinated and too bureaucratic. "Where's the computer system, where's the management?" she says.

Both Susi and Christian believe that their efforts are only part of a much wider effort needed to rebuild Aceh province.

"If we can help at least one family, it would have been worth it," says Christian. Susi, tired after another day at the hangar, vows to keep the operation going for at least another month.

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