THEY FLEW FOR GOD
Those of us in the developed world often take for granted the lifestyle we enjoy every day, such as good neighborhoods, schools, recreation, employment, hobbies, and the freedom to worship God. During the course of this blog, we'll trace the history of missionary aviation, as well as the aviators who built it.
Although there were a few medical mission efforts to remote areas of Central America as early as the 1920's, faith-based missionary aviation developed in earnest after World War II. With the potential to supply remote areas from the air clearly established during the war, Christian aviators realized aviation could increase the range and effectiveness of their efforts to take Christ to the nations. A number of these aviators wanted to put their wartime training and experience to reach previously isolated and unreachable people of the world with the Gospel. To fulfill this dream, Mission Aviation Fellowship was established in 1945 to support mission efforts in outlying areas of the globe. The MAF was originally called the Christian Airman's Missionary Fellowship (CAMF) and was formed by Christian aviators in several countries, to include Jim Truxton of the United States, Murray Kendon in the United Kingdom and Edwin Hartwig of Australia. Though these organizations were separate entities, they merged into the MAF within a few months. Betty Greene flew the first mission flight of the fellowship in early 1946, transporting two Wycliffe Bible Translators to a remote jungle location in Mexico. Other early MAF aviators were George Fisk, Clarence Soderberg, Nate Saint, Larry Montgomery, Grady Parrott, Jim Buyers and Charlie Mellis. Early MAF missions were in Mexico, Peru and Ecuador, with the organization gaining a global reach within twenty years to remote areas of Asia, Africa and Eurasia in addition to mission flights in Latin America.
Flying to remote areas of the globe is not without dangers. In 1951, Edwin Hartwig, who established the Australian branch of the Mission Aviation Fellowship was killed when his aircraft crashed in Asaroka Pass in Central New Guinea. In 1956, the MAF received global attention when pilot Nate Saint and four other missionaries were killed on a beach in Ecuador by members of the Huaorani tribe. Family members of those killed returned to Ecuador and ministered to tribe, with several of those who killed the missionaries converting to Christianity. In the 1960's a number of Fellowship aircraft were involved in accidents while supporting missionaries. In 1969, a Cessna 185 aircraft crashed into a mountain while flying through an abrupt gorge. The crash site was near a village where two missionaries were ambushed and killed four months earlier. The son of one of the missionaries, Paul Newman, was aboard the plane, but escaped serious injury due to being thrown clear of the aircraft. When rescuers arrived, the villagers were quoted as saying "We beg you for your friendship." Between 1945 and 2021 thirteen missionary pilots died in the line of service.
Missionary Flights International (MFI), another missionary aviation service, was established in 1964 by Reverend Don H. Beldin, who provided mission support flights alone in the Bahamas and Caribbean areas. While these trips are utilized to take supplies to missionaries in the area, MFI is also able to aid in disaster relief due to its fleet of two large capacity DC-3s and a Cessna 310. The DC-3s are also advantageous when transporting missionaries to an area. The extra capacity enables a missionary family to bring their cargo and belongings with them, saving customs clearance time once the aircraft arrives in the area. At times, this cargo may include both building materials and pets. Due to both its transport capacity and organization, MFI is able to supply missionaries in the field on a weekly basis, sometimes more frequently as the need arises. Another missionary aviation service is the Missionary Aviation Repair Center (MARC). Founded in 1964 by Roald and Harriett Amundsen, MARC provides both maintenance and mission support to remote areas of Alaska-even ranging into eastern Siberia. With their central location at Soldotna, MARC offered easy repair and supply access to missionaries across Alaska. After their first year of operation, the Missionary Repair Center received a Cessna 180, which provided economical transportation to missionaries without their own aircraft. In 1982, the Soldotna office and hangar sustained major fire damage, temporarily impairing both maintenance and flight operations. However, with the aid of volunteer labor and generous donations, it wasn't long before Soldotna operations were at full capacity. Recently, MARC was able to construct a second hangar, in addition to receiving a King Air A-90 aircraft from their missions partner, Samaritan's Purse.
What does it take to become a missionary pilot? Perhaps the biggest differences between mission aviation and secular aviation are the cross-cultural aspect and the motivation for their work. The majority of missionary pilots fly small aircraft in a number of remote places in a cross-cultural context. Missionary pilots have a good safety record in relation to other types of aviation, largely due to their extensive training. Mission aviators fly into unimproved strips, sloped, gravel and grass-conditions under which most general aviation pilots would never fly. The most key element is one of motivation. The underlying attitude is one of service, the desire for others to hear the Gospel. For example, to become a pilot with the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, the prospective pilot must have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is the first priority. Other important criteria are: they must have an A&P mechanics license; secondly, they need to have a minimum of 400 hrs. total flying time with a commercial license and instrument rating with a minimum of 50 hrs. high-performance time. The third key element is Bible training-with at least twelve undergraduate level college hours of Bible classes or the equivalent. Most mission aviation organizations prefer to recruit pilot-mechanics due to the remote areas in which they must fly, as well as the difficulty of recruiting enough qualified mechanics. In spite of the higher qualifications, this concept has served the MAF well over the past seventy-five years. Again, the most successful candidates will have the qualities of a servant's heart and a high degree of flexibility. In essence, technically capable and spiritually mature. A wide range of people express an interest in becoming missionary pilots, ranging from middle school students to current pilots with thousands of hours flying time. Another requirement with most mission organizations is pilots and overseas staff raise their own financial support before heading out to the mission field. While people are fearful about raising support, MAF, for example, has a ministry partnership department, that trains and works with them before they go out to raise support, enabling mission candidates to pursue contacts with an attitude of confidence. Though the training period for mission aviation candidates could take as long as eight to ten years, depending upon qualifications, the average is about two years, with the first year dedicated to language study.
We've talked about pilots, but what about the planes? During the early years of missionary aviation, there were four basic aircraft types providing ministry services. When missionary aviation began in earnest, after World War II, the aircraft available at the time were either older biplane types, or surplus World War II aircraft, such as the Douglas DC-3, with plentiful cargo and passenger capacity, but at a relatively high price. Gradually, as the Mission Aviation Fellowship and other mission air organizations received more support, the quality of mission aircraft improved. By the early 1950's, missionary pilots began flying planes such as the Piper PA-14, a parasol-winged three passenger plane developed by Piper in 1947 for recreational and short-haul flights. The 14 was a good aircraft for access to remote areas, but had a limited cargo capacity. Within a few years, mission pilots began flying the Cessna 170. The U.S. military used a version of the 170 as an observation plane during the Korean War. For mission service, the 170 had a parasol wing and a three passenger capacity, like the Piper PA-14, but with increased speed, range and cargo capacity. By the late 1950's, the Cessna 180 began to enter mission service. The 180 offered increased cargo capacity, a 25 mph. higher speed, along with a range almost 1.5 times that of the Cessna 170. Ten years later, a new and different type of aircraft became available-the Beechcraft 99 Airliner. With the Beechcraft 99, missionaries in the field had an enhanced degree of support. This plane could accommodate fifteen passengers, a far cry from the three to five permitted on the earlier Piper and Cessna models. Designed as a short-haul airliner, the 99 was intended to serve rural and suburban airports not profitable for larger airliners. At a range of 1,050 miles, the Beech aircraft could both serve a wider area, as well as fly from bases farther away from the locale of service. With a cruising speed of 236 mph, the 99 could also arrive when needed in approximately half the time of the older aircraft. The Beech 99, equipped with twin turboprop engines and retractable landing gear was in production for over twenty years, providing dependable service-making it an ideal aircraft for the mission field.
Today, mission aviation employs eighteen different aircraft types, ranging from the Cessna 172 Skyhawk to the Beechcraft Super King Air 200. Flying missionaries not only teach the Gospel, but provide medical supplies, food and disaster relief, as well as communication support for remote areas of the globe. From a core group of six in 1945 to hundreds of Christian aviators and support personnel of today, missionary aviation has brought the Gospel to previously unreachable areas. Missionary aviators have also brought a quality of life to those areas, never experienced before, flying over a million miles per year in Christian service. Their success is a tribute to the faith and courage of those who flew before them.
This article is the last of a series about leaders of aviation.
WE AT FLY BY WIRE AIR, WISH OUR VIEWERS THE MERRIEST CHRISTMAS AND THE
HAPPIEST NEW YEAR.