From the journeys of the Apostle Paul to the twenty first century, missionaries have been on the move, proclaiming the gospel as well as meeting the physical needs of the communities they serve. During the course of this blog, we will trace the development of mission aviation from its earliest days to its global reach of today.
While missionaries were flown into Central America and the Caribbean region as early as the 1920′s, it wasn’t until after World War II that mission aviation developed into its own unique ministry. One of the the first air ministry organizations was the Mission Aviation Fellowship. The MAF was formed in 1946 as a result of several World War II aviators who envisioned a role for aviation in spreading the gospel. The Mission Aviation Fellowship was initially established from three branches, with Jim Truxton of the United States, Murray Kendon of the the United Kingdom and Edwin Hartwig of Australia. The earliest MAF efforts were in Mexico, Peru and Ecuador with Betty Greene flying two Wycliffe Bible translators to a remote location in Mexico in 1946. By 2010 the MAF supported missionaries in 55 countries, transporting over 200,000 passengers, meeting global mission and humanitarian needs with 130 aircraft.
As a result of the increased global outreach of the Missionary Aviation Fellowship and other aviation ministries, a need for pilot training programs became evident. In 1975 the Mission Aviation Training Institute (MATI) was formed. Upon retiring from the Air Force, Davis Goodman was approached by the President of Piedmont Bible College to establish a flight training program for missionaries under development by the college. Flight training began the prior year, with a single instructor, a borrowed aircraft and nine students at a local airport. Later in 1975, Davis became the program director and purchased a Cessna 150 dedicated for training purposes. Within four years, the program leased space at a larger airport, followed by the addition of an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic School in 1981. In 1984 Goodman ceded both ownership and operational control of Sugar Valley Airport and MATI (now Missionary Aviation Institute) to Piedmont Baptist College. With more pilots than planes for mission efforts, Goodman founded Aviation Ministries International (AMI) in 1984 with the primary tasks of fundraising and aircraft acquisition. By 2015 AMI (now Missionary Air Group) was providing both mission and medical services to outlying areas in more than a dozen countries.
With the steady growth and progress of mission aviation over the past seventy years, as well as improvement in transport systems in underdeveloped areas, some have questioned if mission aviation is relevant. However, when one considers the perspective of a pilot, a different picture arises. While the major cities of the world are easily accessible by jetliner, reaching remote local areas remains a problem. Transportation is not uniform within many of these countries with highways turning into back roads within a fifty mile radius of urban areas. A journey of a few hours by plane could take a day on foot. Secondly, roads are actually disappearing in some of the remote areas of the world. For example, in a number of African countries, when one could travel across the country in a couple of days, is nearly impassable today with bridges and roads in disrepair being replaced by jungle growth due to political instability and inadequate funding. Also, in many instances air transport remains a cost-effective means of travel. A mission organization in Brazil chartered a motorized canoe for a trip up the Amazon river only to find out they could have chartered a Cessna 206 float plane for an identical rate. National aviation organizations now exist fully staffed and funded by local mission groups. The Asas de Socorro in Brazil manages five bases along the Amazon in addition to operating a flight school in Anapolis, training students from other Latin-American countries. Finally, mission aviation remains the most flexible and responsive tool to reach otherwise impassable areas. In Morocco, where mission work has thrived for years along its populated coastal cities, the Berber tribesmen of the Atlas Mountains remain without a church due to the ruggedness of the terrain and relative isolation.