a personal memoir

When Albert Schweitzer refused to fly

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

A young Alex Kvassay (L) with Dr Albert Schweitzer, who graciously accommodated a drop-in guest with a tour of his hospital and grounds, but declined the offer of an airplane ride.

On Nov 1964, Beech Demo Pilot Bob Oestreicher and I dragged an early model King Air 90—I think it was serial number 5—all around Africa on a demonstration tour.

While we were enroute, FAA prohibited all King Air flights under IFR conditions due to icing problems encountered with the engine intakes. This news never caught up with us during the trip—but we had no problems at all.

During our stopover in Libreville, capital of the Republic of Gabon, we had a Sunday with nothing to do. I remembered that the famous jungle hospital of the equally famous Dr Albert Schweitzer was in the Gabon, in the city of Lambaréné. A quick check on the map revealed that this place was only about 100 miles from our position.

Crewmembers, their luggage and the newly-certified Beech King Air 90 during its 1964 tour of Africa. The manifest included service engineers from Pratt & Whitney Canada as well as Beech.

It also meant that we would be crossing the Equator both ways. So we made a quick decision. Let's go.

After landing at Lambaréné, we found out that the hospital was on the other side of the Ogooué river. We could see no bridge and ferry services did not exist. However, I managed to find a rowboat and we were rowed across.

At the hospital dock, we were greeted by a well dressed, polite young native man who spoke excellent French. I explained that we were just a couple of traveling firemen and wished to see the famous hospital. Without any further discussion, the young man led us to one of the buildings constructed of wood and standing on relatively high stilts.

Going up the stairs into one of the buildings, he took us right in to the office where Dr Albert Schweitzer was working at his desk. This was a great surprise because we really hadn't hoped to meet the famous doctor.

We explained who we were in German because, although the doctor was a French citizen, he came from Alsace, a region of France with a large German-speaking minority.
For the benefit of the younger generation, or others who may not have heard of him, Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) was a pastor and a recognized organ player who gave concerts all over Europe.

At age 35 or so he decided to go to Africa as a missionary. He also realized that a medical degree would be of great use to him in this mission, and earned his medical degree at age 38.

Dr Schweitzer earned his fame and reputation for his humanitarian activities in Africa, not for any great achievement in the field of medical science.

Grounds and buildings of Dr Schweitzer's hospital complex were decidedly spartan but consistent with the simplicity of the local people's lifestyles.

The hospital itself gave the impression that it was a rather primitive place, and the patients all lived in small shacks. There was one modern air-conditioned building for surgery. The volunteer doctors came from all over the world. No patient had to pay for treatment at this facility.

There were few nurses, because the patients could and did bring their immediate family (as well as goats, dogs, monkeys, etc). Dining facilities were only for the staff, but food was issued and the families cooked on open fires in front of the small shacks.

I should explain that this was the system the patients preferred. Later, after independence from France in 1960, the new government of the Gabon built a modern hospital building with the usual limitations on what (and whom) the patients could bring with them. But the old hospital continued to operate because most native patients refused to go to the new modern building.

After a long conversation about all the troubles in the Congo, Dr Schweitzer called in an American medical doctor who gave us a thorough tour of the facility. We were invited to come back for lunch, which was also attended by the German nurse who had stayed with Schweitzer from the beginning. At the time of our visit, Albert Schweitzer was about 90 years old. He died shortly after our visit.

Before we left I asked Dr Schweitzer to come with us to the airport so that we could take him on a local flight and he could see his establishment from the air. The good doctor declined. He said that he'd never been in an aircraft and that he felt it was too late to start flying at his age. He probably wouldn't have bought a King Air anyway.

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 86, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea and Cuba.