AOPA - Career Pilot

Career Success Stories

Mission Pilot

Flying for a higher authority

By Wayne Phillips (From AOPA Flight Training)

Who operates the largest humanitarian airline in the world? Which airline flies into and out of the most challenging airstrips located in some of the planet's most remote places? Can you name the outfit that launches more than 55 aircraft from more than 30 bases in at least 18 countries, tallying in excess of 80,000 flights annually? This enterprise logs more than five million miles and operates at more than 3,000 dirt or grass strips.

The answer: Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) of Redlands, California.

With more than 189 million Christians living within its borders, the United States is home to the largest Christian population on Earth--and for churchgoing aviators, a career with MAF as a missionary pilot might be worth looking into. MAF maintains a fleet of Cessna 185s, 206s, 207s, 208s, and 210s. Some of these machines are equipped with floats. MAF also has three Beech King Airs in its aircraft stable.

Flight missions are varied, challenging, and sometimes dangerous. MAF operations support workers, evangelists, and teachers on the missionary field. MAF pilots transport passengers and cargo of all kinds, including doctors, patients, food, seed, medicine, supplies, and just about anything else necessary to improve the quality of life in some of the world's most forlorn and forgotten areas.

And the flying! Missionary flying can best be described as the antithesis of airline flight. A Boeing or Airbus captain will step onto the flight deck, program the FMS, and watch the airliner take off, climb, fly straight and level, descend, and land, time after time after time, year after year after year. An MAF pilot may arrive at a short strip literally carved out of the jungle. He will then hand-fly his aircraft to dodge the surrounding mountains and late-morning thunderstorms. He flies like life depends on it. In most cases, it does.

To get a true flavor of the work, read an excerpt from the diary of Sandy Toomer, an MAF pilot who served in Shell, Ecuador. Toomer is currently an MAF recruiter.

"As I watch the deluge splatter the tarmac, our flight coordinator, Tomas, trots up to me.

"'Capitan, there's a snakebite patient in Molino. As soon as the weather breaks, we'll send you out. It's a small boy...he was bitten in the face...yesterday.'

"By 10 a.m., the rain slows, the reports out in the jungle are improving, and I decided it's worth a try to get the boy out. I depart within 15 minutes for the 30-minute flight out to Molino, a Quichua village.

"After landing on the gooey surface I can see it is bad. His head is swollen to the size of a soccer ball, and his breathing is labored as his mouth and likely throat are closing off. I customarily shake hands with as many people as I can, then load the boy and his mom on board my 206 for the flight back to Shell. As soon as I land in Shell, the boy will be sent by ambulance to the HCJB Hospital Vozandes, five minutes from the MAF hangar.

"As soon as I get back I find that my original schedule has been shot to pieces due to the spotty rain throughout the jungle. We'll do what we can today and make up for it tomorrow...if it doesn't rain...as much.

"On this flight I leave Shell to the southwest where some missionaries are working to translate the Old Testament into the Shuar language. My mission is to pick up five Shuar Indians in three villages and get them back to Makuma before the rain starts again.

"By 2 p.m. I finish up and I'm ready to leave Makuma for another five landings and takeoffs to pick up more medical emergencies and run them over to a jungle hospital operated by the Ecuadorian government in Taisha.

"By 5 p.m., I depart Taisha still with one last stop. Go by San Carlos and pick up a carpenter and his crew and tools. They have been building a new school building in the village. From San Carlos we'll head back to Shell.

"As I get closer to Shell it indeed looks dark, very dark, dreary and gray.

"Switching gears, I pull out the instrument approach plate and give it the once-over like a hundred times before. The primary approach we use into Shell is a VOR/DME arc beginning eight kilometers out.

"It's nearly 6 p.m. After 12 landings, 3.5 hours of tach time, 40 minutes of actual instrument conditions, and an approach to minimums my day is done. Hey, and it's just Monday!"

The foregoing narrative makes airline flying seem awfully mundane, doesn't it?

The minimum requirements to be considered as a fixed-wing MAF pilot are these: commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating and 400 hours of total time; 50 hours of high-performance time; airframe and powerplant (A&P) certificate. CFIs who have good tailwheel experience are especially valuable candidates.

Why the A&P? When your engine hiccups in the jungle, placing a cell call to the local FBO mechanic for help is not an option.

But, wait--there are other requisites that you will not see for ordinary aviation employment because this is not an ordinary career. It's a service to both mankind and that higher authority. The process is rigorous and is not for the faint of heart.

Primary requirements: Quite detailed, but best described as a dedicated member of the Christian community and active subscriber to its religious principles.

Preparation and training: Completion of MAF's nontechnical and technical requirements (nontechnical requirements apply to both applicant and spouse).

Application: Formal applications are sent, upon request, to persons who currently fulfill, or are in the final phases of fulfilling, MAF's minimum requirements. If approved, the applicant receives a formal invitation to technical candidacy. Included with the formal invitation are medical examination forms and psychological tests to be completed and returned prior to technical candidacy.

Technical candidacy: Technical candidacy is at the applicant's expense except for housing. Pilot/mechanics spend one week in flight evaluation (seven to 10 hours in a Cessna 206) and one week of maintenance evaluation.

Non-technical candidacy: A two-week session at MAF headquarters. Candidate families are introduced to the operation, mission, and philosophy of MAF. During this stage successful candidates are accepted into membership and field assignments made.

Fast track: New MAF families seek out ministry partners--friends, family, and churches that provide both spiritual and financial support.

Orientation: For pilots/mechanics, 10 weeks of additional preparatory training.

Language school: Approximately six months to one year is spent in concentrated language study outside the United States.

Field orientation: A minimum of six months of supervised, on-location flight maintenance training and cultural adjustment.

Mission career: The normal MAF term of service consists of three and one-half years on the field followed by six months of furlough in your home country.

Now, the big question. What about pay? The answer is best put forth by Paul Lay, a former flier who spent six years in MAF service. "Being a MAF pilot is flying on the front lines of war against isolation, poverty, and darkness: it's giving people--men, women, and children--who have no chance, a second chance. MAF pilots don't pull down the pay of a lot of professional pilots, but they're the richest fliers I know."

Other organizations involved in missionary aviation include JAARS and Missionary Flights International, an air arm for missions in the West Indies.

If you want more information, surf over to MAF's Web site and recruiting site, or contact any of the schools listed that prepare pilots for a career in missionary aviation.

Missionary aviation training

LeTourneau University
P.O. Box 7001
Longview, Texas 74607
800/259-LETU

Mission Aviation Training Academy
P.O. Box 3655
Arlington, Washington 98223
425/343-6035

MMS Aviation
P.O. Box 1118
Coshocton, Ohio 43812
888-950-4395

Moody Aviation
Building no. 68
6719 E. Rutter Avenue
Spokane, Washington 99212
877/487-1769

Multnomah Bible College
8435 NE Glisan St.
Portland, Oregon 97220

Prairie Bible Institute
Box 4000
Three Hills, Alberta, Canada
403/443-2349

School of Missionary Aviation Technology
730 Lincoln Lake Ave.
Lowell, Michigan 49331
616/897-5785

Wayne Phillips is an airline transport pilot with a Boeing 737 type rating. He is a B-737 instructor and operates the Airline Training Orientation Program in association with Continental Airlines. He is an aviation safety consultant in Michigan and speaker for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.