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Fulfilling a mission; fueled by aviation

Steve Russell has had a singular focus throughout his life. Making a difference is a core principle of Russell’s, whether as a decorated officer in the U.S. Army, helping to fight against global terrorism; as a leader in Congress, on the front lines advocating for veterans; as an aspiring aviator; and now in a calling to spread the gospel around the world.

Steve Russell's orientation in a JAARS Pilatus PC–6 Porter in November. Photo courtesy of Steve Russell.

In October Russell was named CEO of JAARS, a global organization that has a mandate to make Bible translation and language development possible, especially in the most remote and difficult places on Earth. The group enables that vision through pilot training and mission aviation services, remote technology and communications support, and off-the-grid logistical solutions that help make translation possible.

Russell became the first leader of JAARS in its 75 years from outside the Bible translation movement.

Russell is also no stranger to aviation, which helps him fulfill his new role.

While in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Oklahoma's fifth district from 2015 to 2019, Russell was introduced to the passion of flying by former Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) and the late Rep. Don Young, (R-Alaska), and has never looked back.

“Ralph told me he could teach me to fly. He challenged me to solo in a one-week accelerated effort,” Russell explained. “I started on a Monday and soloed on a Friday morning.”

However, as with many aspiring aviators, life slowed the process down a bit.

“While I had a lightning start, I had the world’s slowest finish,” he said. “It became very difficult to line up a plane, instructor, deal with congressional schedule, and weather. After Congress, my wife encouraged me to finish. I found an instructor to clean me up and five months later in 2019 got my pilot’s license!”

While in Congress, Russell soon became a member of the House General Aviation Caucus and a member of AOPA (“I love the magazines!”). For his dedicated efforts in Congress in helping to prevent the privatization of our air traffic control system, he and Abraham were presented with the AOPA Joseph B. “Doc” Hartranft Jr. Award in 2018.

Steve Russell and ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, pictured a few months after Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. Photo courtesy of Steve Russell.

His congressional stint followed a successful career in the military. Reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army, Russell played a significant role in the capture of Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War. Russell began an active veterans advocacy career upon retirement and worked closely with other veterans to bolster soldiers' voices in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He formed Vets for Victory with several decorated warriors, holding rallies in several states to embolden the public to support the troops.

After leaving Congress, Russell served as executive pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Oklahoma City from 2019 to 2022, before embarking on his new challenge at JAARS.

Now, Russell is able to combine his calling with his love for aviation:

“When I earned my license, I prayed, ‘Lord, I don’t want to just use this for a $100 hamburger hobby. Where are you working in aviation where I can participate?’” he said.

Russell founded a nonprofit called the Redeemed Flying Corps, training young people with a call to missions to learn to fly or become a mechanic. In just two years, and with two donated aircraft and many gifts of time and talent, the group has produced several teenage pilots and mechanics.

“In the course of that work, we took a team in February 2022 of six pilots from the Flying Corps to come and serve at the JAARS base in Waxhaw, North Carolina, to do the messy task of scraping paint off of a Helio Courier, so their mechanics could focus on priority work," Russell explained. "We were certainly qualified to scrape paint. We got the plane done in a week.”

“Then, at the end of that February I was contacted about potentially becoming a candidate to be the next President and CEO of the organization,” he proudly concluded. “[Twenty-one] meetings later and here I am.”

Currently, Russell is aiming to stay current while flying a Piper Cherokee and restoring 1948 Cessna 140.

Alyssa J. Miller

Eric Blinderman

Senior Director of Communications
Eric Blinderman is AOPA’s Senior Director of Communications. Eric joined AOPA in 2020 after several years at leading marketing/communications agencies in New York and is looking forward to putting his newly minted private pilot certificate to work.
Topics: People, Around-the-World Flight, Public Benefit Flying

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