August 1, 2011
By Kathy Dondzila
After Joe Hopkins delivered two missionaries to their Brazilian villages, he took off for home base. But the highway he had planned to follow was obscured by low scud. Hopkins decided to go on instruments and climbed to 7,000 feet. With no VOR available, he tuned the ADF to a radio station near his destination, hoping to see the airport when he arrived. He landed safely with a sobering realization of the challenges of flying in isolated areas—deepening when the radio station subsequently washed downriver—which refocused his life on aviation safety.
As a young man, Hopkins felt called to missionary work and completed two programs at Moody Aviation, one in radio technology and one in aviation. He soloed a Piper J–3 Cub in 1959 and graduated in 1962 with an instrument rating, commercial certificate, flight instructor certificate, and an airframe and powerplant license. (He earned his ATP certificate years later.) After hundreds of landings in various aircraft, he quips that undoubtedly, the best thing he landed at Moody was Elaine—a registered nurse who eventually became his wife. Together they began work in the mission field through Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), which led them to Brazil. They served a couple of years before returning to the United States to train missionary students in the rigors of bush and jungle flying. Hopkins later worked as a flight instructor at Moody Aviation’s missionary pilot training school in Tennessee.
Challenges of flying in isolated areas refocused him on aviation safety.
The tragic deaths of a fellow pilot and a flight engineer in an aircraft accident renewed his resolve to improve aviation safety. Hopkins turned his grief into action, founding Mission Safety International (MSI) in 1983 to develop safety programs and services for aviation-based mission organizations and training institutes around the world. He has visited about 35 countries, conducting safety seminars and operational audits to aviators serving in remote areas. Although now retired from MSI, Hopkins remains involved part time and sits on its board of directors. An AOPA member for 50 years, he stays current and active in aviation.
Hopkins doesn’t just promote aviation safety for others—his personal safety record is spotless. The FAA recognized his 10,600 hours of safe flight by awarding him the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for 50 years of accident-free flying. With all the accolades, Hopkins remains focused on what’s most important to him—although he’s now a Master Pilot, he says he has always been “the Master’s” pilot.
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