Colleagues praised Peterson for his quiet competence as a pilot and his unwavering service to others.
“He doesn’t like being in the spotlight or taking credit for his accomplishments,” said Mike Mower, a fellow JAARS pilot who flew with Peterson in the Philippines. “He’d rather see others get the recognition.”
Peterson’s son Rob, a missionary pilot in Africa, wrote via email that his dad provided a “consistent example of character, integrity, and dependence upon on the Lord.”
“He has also set an example to me by his deliberate, careful, and disciplined approach to flying.”
Peterson’s son Todd is a U.S. Air Force pilot based in Germany, and he said his dad shaped his own flying ambitions.
“He is the most exemplary pilot and man I have ever met,” Todd wrote. “He is a person who gives his all to his family, his faith, and aviation. Words cannot even come close to expressing the gratitude I feel.”
As usual, the sweepstakes winner was chosen in a random drawing by a third party. The sweepstakes was open from Dec. 1, 2014, until Dec. 31, 2015, and Peterson’s membership in AOPA during that period automatically entered him for a chance to win. As an Automatic Annual Renewal member, Peterson received extra entries in the sweepstakes. The previous four AOPA Sweepstakes winners have been Automatic Annual Renewal members.
The presentation of the prize airplane involved an elaborate ruse—and this year it was done in coordination with JAARS missionaries unaccustomed to subterfuge. The airplane, a 1978 Cessna 152, was remanufactured by the craftsmen at Aviat Aircraft in Afton, Wyoming, to “as-new” condition. (Learn more about the remanufactured aircraft in this AOPA Pilot article.)
The JAARS organization, which has more than 600 staff, came up with a plan to hold a ceremony to honor Peterson’s work on extending a rough, grass runway at its home airport that is used to prepare JAARS pilots for the obstructed, unimproved strips they will face overseas. Peterson had extended the runway to 1,400 feet from 800 feet, mostly with volunteer labor and a 1968 front-end loader.
The honor was real, JAARS said. But the surprise award of the airplane to a well-loved and respected pilot was a tightly kept secret.
Baker arranged to attend the runway ceremony with several members of the AOPA media staff.
The group held a presentation in the JAARS hangar with a PowerPoint presentation that touched on the highlights of the project, and Baker was asked to say a few words.
"It's always great to be back in the state that was first to fly," Baker said. He praised the new runway, and noted JAARS’ efforts to train pilots and mechanics and restore aging bush aircraft. He said that AOPA shares those goals and even launched a Reimagined aircraft program that restores worn out trainers to as-new condition.
The very first such remanufactured aircraft is N152UC, a bright yellow Cessna 152 that was scheduled to be given to the winner of the AOPA You Can Fly Sweepstakes in the first quarter of this year. Baker congratulated Peterson on winning the sweepstakes, and JAARS officials pulled the hangar doors open to reveal the airplane, which had quietly landed at the airport and taxied to the hangar during the ceremony.
Peterson was totally surprised by the gift and graciously thanked AOPA, saying, "I got too old to fly for JAARS, but I've been thinking about getting back into flying." The Cessna 152 is perfect for that mission.
His sons, who have known it was in the works for a week, had their own ideas for the airplane’s future.
“I’d like to train my children to fly in it someday,” said Todd, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall. “I’ll make myself fit.”
Eric Peterson, a missionary pilot who has operated search-and-rescue, disaster relief, and humanitarian flights for almost 40 years, was awarded the AOPA 2015 You Can Fly Sweepstakes top prize, a Reimagined Cessna 152, at a surprise presentation March 22 in North Carolina.
“Eric exemplifies the very best attributes of general aviation pilots through his willingness to give of himself for others,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “He’s flown fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters all over the world in service to others. He’s known by his peers as an extraordinarily hard worker and, despite recent back surgery, he just finished extending a turf runway that will help train future missionary pilots who will carry on this demanding work. He’s also raised two sons, Rob and Todd, who followed his footsteps and became professional pilots—and that’s a legacy any of us would be proud of.“
Peterson served as a pilot and more recently an airport manager for JAARS Inc., a nonprofit, North Carolina-based firm that trains and places missionaries around the world. JAARS currently has more than 60 pilots operating 26 aircraft in seven countries around the world (Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Gabon, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania).
Peterson was raised on a dairy farm in Michigan, became a pilot and aviation mechanic, and flew in Alaska, where me met his wife, Carol. The two became Christian missionaries and spent most of their careers in the Philippines, where Eric flew Helio Couriers, Super Cubs, and Hiller and Robinson helicopters. They also raised two children there.
Flying in remote and mountainous areas without reliable weather forecasts or navigation aids was exceptionally risky. Some of the landing strips were hacked on mountainsides with hand tools, and many were just 600 feet or less. Other hazards included a rebel group that once struck Peterson’s Hiller UH12E helicopter with five bullets, one of which lodged in a rotor blade.
Ever wonder what goes in to identifying the sweepstakes winner? Check out answers to these frequently asked questions and find out how Peterson was selected as the winner.
What's in store for the next AOPA Sweepstakes? AOPA will be giving away a Cessna 172—who knows, it could be your new airplane.