Updated: Dec 16, 2019
While missionary aviation services have been around since the late 1920's they experienced a dramatic rise since the end of World War II. The first (and largest) mission aviation effort is the
Mission Aviation Fellowship. The Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) provides both communications and learning technology services to more than 1,000 Christian and humanitarian agencies around the globe.
Mission Aviation Fellowship began in 1945, as the result of several pilots who had served in World War II, who envisioned a role for aviation in spreading the Christian faith. After the war, Jim Truxton of the United States, Murray Kendon in the United Kingdom and Edwin Hartwig of Australia developed missionary organizations in their respective countries. The U.S. organization was the first to provide missionary service, beginning operations in 1946 under the name Christian Airmen's Missionary Fellowship (CAMF). Later known as the Mission Aviation Fellowship, Betty Greene flew the first mission flight of the MAF by transporting two Wycliffe Bible translators to a remote site in Mexico. Other missionary pilots of the CAMF ministry were Nate Saint, Grady Parrott, Larry Montgomery, Charlie Mellis, Jim Buyers, George Fisk and Clarence Soderberg. While the earliest fields of service for the MAF were Mexico, Peru and Ecuador, the organization later expanded to serve nations in Latin America, Asia and Africa. By the 1960's missionary aviation organizations such as Wings For The Word, Ethnos360 Aviation and AIM AIR began to supplement the efforts of the Mission Aviation Fellowship in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
How does one become a missionary pilot or mechanic? If you are interested in serving as a missionary pilot or mechanic, you must meet a specific set of criteria. Aviation training and education is quite expensive, so those with significant debt will be challenged to qualify. From the standpoint of training, mission organizations require that even the most experienced pilots take part in training and orientation classes. The national aviation administration of the host country regulates all missionary personnel. Pilots must be certified and able to surmount any potential language barriers. Though English is the primary language of most aviation authorities, a number of situations could occur in which a pilot may need fluency in another language. Pilots who carry mail and supplies to outlying areas must have a good conversational dialogue with the locals. Missionary pilots must also pay for their own expenses during mission flights, since they won't be reimbursed until after the trip is completed. While there is no preferred way to obtain training, missionary-specific schools commonly rely on instructors from missionary groups with field experience. When students train with missionaries, they tend to become more motivated. Some universities offer degrees upon graduation, but this is usually the most expensive route. Designated technical schools and community colleges offer a degree which costs less than one from a university. Missionary pilots must carefully decide if the cost of a degree is worth the money, time and effort. Two other avenues for the prospective missionary pilot are to borrow a plane from a friend for training purposes or purchase a relatively cheap plane and resell it once training is completed.
Speaking of planes, what aircraft types are used by flying missionaries. Initially, surplus World War II observation planes such as the Aeronca L 3 observation plane. More capable civil aircraft came into use over time. Three aircraft which bear the brunt of missionary flights today are the Beechcraft Super King Air 200, Cessna 172P Skyhawk and the Cessna 182 SMA Skylane. The Beechcraft Super King Air 200 was first produced in 1972 and is still in production. The Super King has an operational range of 920 miles and can carry a pilot, copilot and six passengers, at a speed of 310 mph with a service ceiling of 35,000 ft. The aircraft is a twin engine turboprop, making it ideal for operating from small runways in underdeveloped areas. The Cessna 172P Skyhawk was introduced in 1955 and remains in production. An ideal aircraft for bush flying, the 172 has a cruising speed of 140 mph, service ceiling of 13,500 ft. and pilot and crew of 3. With a range of 900 miles, the 172 is rated as one of the top civil aircraft of all time. The Cessna 182 SMA Skylane first entered production in 1956 and remains in production to this day. The 182 has a passenger capacity of 3 plus the pilot. It has a cruising speed of 170 mph with a range of 930 miles and a service ceiling of 18,100 ft. Though similar to the 172 in a number of respects, the Skylane has a retractable landing gear.
Since the end of World War II, the use of light aircraft has been the mainstay of missionary efforts throughout the globe. However, developments in recent years have called into question the use of aviation as a viable mode of transportation. Can newly planted churches in remote areas sustain the cost of air transport? With the focus of world missions shifting from a tribal population to one of megacities, is an air transport ministry the best use of mission funding? Additionally, such external factors as costly evacuations, political instability and increased fuel prices may render mission aviation unsustainable. Other factors to consider are the progress of land transportation, assumption of the mission role by national churches, scales of economy and new mission frontiers. With better interior roads and the proliferation of all-terrain vehicles, land travel remains less costly than air transport, although the transit time is several days longer. While many mission aircraft can only carry six passengers, land vehicles are able to carry twice that amount in many instances. As the interior area of the mission country develops, the local population becomes more urbanized. This trend results in larger local churches, progressing beyond the mission stage. Scales of economy and new mission frontiers are interrelated in the sense that once the mission community grows, it is served by the national church organization, as well as better land and air transport by the host country.
However, missionary aviation is still vital for several reasons. For one, the growth of land transport is not as uniform as one would think. While most megacities can be easily reached by jetliner, access to areas 50 miles outside is often difficult. Also, decreased appropriations for highway funding in a number of African and Asian countries over the last few years has impaired land transport, leaving aviation the only reliable means to reach many remote areas. Though the cost of air transport may be higher than comparable land routes, this does not hold true in every situation. For example, in Brazil the per mile rate for air travel is the same for a motorized canoe, without the mosquitoes. Finally, mission aviation remains the best means to spread the gospel to remote areas. For many, mission aviation remains the most timely and safe means of transport.
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