Missionary pilots share stories, backcountry flying tips

April 7, 2011

Mission

An Agape Flight twin turbine-engine Embraer Bandeirante is one of the focal points of the mission aviation exhibit at Sun ‘n Fun.

Something didn’t seem right. Glen Ferguson had just departed a Brazilian airstrip to fly to a remote village and pick up a young missionary family. The aircraft performed normally. The engine instruments checked out. The only thing slightly amiss was a periodic fluctuation in EGTs. Still, Ferguson couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with the aircraft. He leveled off in cruise and checked the magnetos. Left mag: normal. Right mag: silence. Ferguson immediately turned the mags back to both and returned to his departure airport less than 15 minutes away.

He radioed the family, who were planning to meet him at a small airstrip near their village, to break the disappointing news. However, he was determined to reach them. Ferguson, also an A&P, changed the bad magneto in just enough time to head back to pick up the family. In Brazil, a rule prohibited Ferguson from flying after sunset. After a one-hour, 45-minute flight to the village, Ferguson picked up the family, apologizing for the delay. To his surprise, the father of the family thanked him for being late.

Turns out, at the time Ferguson was scheduled to land in the jungle, a neighboring village attacked the village where the missionary family was stationed. They locked themselves in their house until the fighting stopped. Luckily, no one was killed, but the father told Ferguson it could have been a different outcome if he had landed there in the midst of the unrest.

Later, Ferguson took apart the bad magneto to inspect and repair it. He found nothing wrong.

“It’s changed my attitude about things,” Ferguson said, explaining that having a dead battery or running late could be part of a larger plan. “Whatever it is, God is in control.” Ferguson has been a missionary pilot for JAARS (formerly the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service) for 27 years, 10 of which he spent stationed in Brazil. The group now operates in six countries and has partnerships with multiple organizations, he said.

Mission JAARS brought a Helio Courier and Robinson R44 for display at Sun ‘n Fun.

Ferguson was on hand, along with other pilots, to share his aviation stories during Sun ‘n Fun as part of the mission aviation exhibit. Other groups included Mission Aviation Fellowship, Mission Safety International, Agape Flight, Harvest Aviation, New Tribes Missions, Hobe Sound Bible College, and Moody Radio. During the Sun ‘n Fun airshow, pilots demonstrated the slow-flight capabilities of the Helio Courier. The aircraft was badly damaged, however, when the tornado blew through the airport on March 31.

“Mission Aviation began in earnest after World War II,” John Hoke said in a press release. Hoke coordinated the groups’ exhibit Sun ‘n Fun. “It evolved from the need of missionaries to reach people who lived in the world’s most remote places. Highly-skilled missionary pilots fly their aircraft—usually small, single-engine models—in order to access isolated areas that are unreachable by other, more ordinary means.”

Mission A Mission Aviation Fellowship employee demonstrates the Kodiak simulator set up for landing on a dirt strip with a 19-percent slope.

Pilots who visited the mission aviation area not only had the opportunity to see another Helio Courier, a Robinson R44, and a twin turbine-engine Embraer Bandeirante on display, but they also got to try their hand at flying a simulator into one of Mission Aviation Fellowship’s toughest landing sites.

The challenge: landing a Kodiak on a handmade dirt strip in Borneo, Indonesia, with a 19 percent slope.

Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot John Hook has been flying with the organization for 39 years and has operated at that strip. “It’s a lot easier to land an airplane on that than the simulator,” he said. The strip was built by hand but suffers from erosion from the frequent rains near the equator. Hook coaches pilots to “fly up the hill,” explaining that a powered approach is necessary to prevent the airplane from settling too hard. Just after touchdown, the pilots must apply full power to reach the top of the hill. Hook uses his experience on this and other backcountry strips to host mountain flying seminars for pilots at events like Sun ‘n Fun.

“This is a remarkable story of people helping people through aviation,” Hoke said.

Mission

A JAARS demonstration Helio Courier was damaged by the severe storm that struck Lakeland, Fla., on March 31.
Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller | AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.