Air Mobile Joe

Florida missionary family struggles with adversity to help others

January 1, 2012

Photography by Mike Fizer

Ti Burik

The “Little Donkey” has carried millions of gallons of clean water to Haiti, if you include all the water generated by all of the purifiers that Joe Hurston has personally flown to that damaged country.

Ariana, born in Haiti, came to the door of the Cessna Skymaster nicknamed Ti Burik and paused; that first step is a big one for any 6-year-old. Joe Hurston, her adoptive father, lifted her from the airplane to the tarmac where she shyly stood. After meeting her 14-year-old brother, Peter, I stooped down and said, “I saw you on TV!” She looked at the ground.

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Joe Hurston’s wife, Cindy, named the 1970 turbocharged Cessna 337 Skymaster after the ground crew in Haiti expressed amazement at how much it carried. “It’s a little donkey,” she said, and the name stuck. Now, it’s painted on the door of the airplane that arrives in Haiti stuffed with supplies 15 to 20 times a year, thanks to donations to Hurston’s Air Mobile Ministries. Baby formula, diapers, vitamin pills, water purifier pumps made by Hurston’s company, and plastic sacks of powdered food are jammed to the cabin ceiling.

Hurston’s original dream, after a rough start to life and a rude awakening, was to lead evangelical crusades worldwide. That led to a need for funding, which came from two sources: He taught himself to refill toner cartridges for missionary organizations in Haiti, and met a friend with an idea for portable water purification pumps. With donations, he could provide clean drinking water to victims of disaster worldwide, and especially in Haiti. A toner cartridge contract from a NASA contractor at Kennedy Space Center helped take care of his family.

Applying to the ABC television show Extreme Makeover was an act of desperation. He had begun losing money when his cartridge business took a downturn, and he was in deep financial trouble. Then, during a trip out of state, a leak in an upstairs bathroom gushed through the house for days. The family, including two adopted Haitian girls, moved into a recreational vehicle and started using the pumps for drinking water that were built for disasters. ABC replaced the house in four days during a show in early 2010 (using a section from a Boeing 737 fuselage to separate the living room and kitchen), and the aviation community came together to refurbish Ti Burik (sometimes spelled bourik, Creole for “donkey”).

Joe Hurston

Joe Hurston with one of his water purifiers in action, powered by the airplane’s battery. It can take water from a mud puddle and provide safe water to a child 30 seconds later.

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After a few minutes, Ariana was skipping happily around the tarmac, still in her school uniform, her shyness gone. Her first ride from Haiti with Hurston was overshadowed by one question: Would she live? With no medical care available, and suffering from a colostomy, she was past the point where most children would have died. After she was cured by doctors in Florida, her parents worried that her health would deteriorate again if she returned to Haiti, and asked the Hurstons to raise her.

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“Before we did the conversion, he was filling up with 128 gallons of fuel, flying a long way over water, and praying a lot. Now he has 168 gallons.” —Owen Bell, Aviation Enterprises

While ABC producers had arranged to paint the Skymaster, a friend of Hurston’s began organizing an effort to refurbish the aircraft, starting with the donation of parts. Garmin stepped in with two GNS430 GPS radios, a GMA 347 audio panel, a GTX 330 transponder, and a G500 combination primary and multifunction flight display. Hurston has a Garmin aera 500 portable GPS on the co-pilot yoke.

He also received long-range fuel tanks at a 75-percent discount from Aviation Enterprises in Nashville, Tennessee. While it is four tanks with four filler caps per wing, some of those tanks are made up of individual cells—one of them only 12 inches long. You could say he has seven tanks per wing. “Before we did the conversion,” said Aviation Enterprises owner Owen Bell, “he was filling up with 128 gallons of fuel, flying a long way over water, and praying a lot. Now he has 168 gallons.”

Hurston’s friend contacted Dodd Stretch, president of Airtex Products, an interior shop at Trenton, New Jersey. “While on the phone with him, I began looking around the Internet to verify the story, and to find out more about the Hurston family,” Stretch said. “After a little research, it became clear that this would be an easy decision. I told Rick [the friend] I was happy to donate the entire interior, and offered to help in their quest for donations.” He later escalated that from a donation of a parts kit, to just taking the airplane into the hangar and doing the work. By then he had a half-dozen companies on board, and before he was through, 20 general aviation companies had donated more than $40,000 in services or parts. Then it was off to the paint shop.

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Driving around the perimeter road of Space Coast Regional Airport at Titusville, Florida, Ariana was fascinated by how often the road changes directions. “Now we’re going this way,” she excitedly said. From then on, Hurston kept her informed when a turn was coming.

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Painting had to be delayed for several reasons. For one, when Hurston had a mission to help the people of Haiti, the tape came off and the airplane went. For another, anti-corrosion liquid began seeping from the fuselage after it was stripped for painting at Southern Executive Jet at Sanford, Florida. It still wasn’t complete at the time this article was written, lacking accent strips. However, the paint shop contacted Hurston a few days after photographer Mike Fizer and I left, asking that he bring it back one final time.

Just two days before we arrived, NASA had ended contracts for hundreds of small businesses, including Hurston’s toner refill company. He laid off 22 people, including himself—continuing to work without a salary. Just 72 hours later he was on his way to Haiti again, using donated money and delivering donated vitamins, diapers, baby formula, and plastic sacks of powder that turn into nutritious food. There were water purifier pumps aboard, but because they were going to a location with no electricity, he also had two half-price solar panels in the load.

Ariana Hurston The “Little Donkey” helped save Ariana's life by taking her to Florida for medical treatment.

Hurston has come a long way from his days as a youth when he nearly helped pilot a flight delivering 13,700 pounds of C4 explosive to Cuban rebels fighting Fidel Castro. He had slammed the car door instead of getting in to go to the airplane, getting an immediate death threat. The next day all the organizers of the flight were arrested next to the fully loaded airplane. One government agency wanted the explosives delivered, but one didn’t. All those arrested went to jail. That’s when he vowed to stop scaring his mother, and found work and a new life as a missionary.

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Ariana had something new to show her mother that night. When her mother came home from her job as a nurse—the job she took to replace income lost from the toner business—she saw her daughter’s “Joy” award. Her school gives an award each month to the most joyful child. She never could have won it in Haiti.

Email the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

To learn more about Air Mobile Ministries, see the website.