by Jon Lewis
The small red and white Cessna spirals down through the clouds and makes a perfect landing on the tiny grass runway carved out of the dense jungle.
The small red and white Cessna spirals down through the clouds and makes a perfect landing on the tiny grass runway carved out of the dense jungle. The young pilot bounds out of the cockpit to assist the waiting missionary couple whose child is lying on a stretcher, a victim of a snakebite. Within minutes, the child and parents are strapped in place. The throaty roar of the engine reverberates through the giant trees as the plane launches skyward to complete another successful rescue mission.
Scenarios like this highlight what is still happening in countless isolated places around the world. Beginning just prior to World War II and continuing to the present, the use of light aircraft has significantly aided the missionary effort in reaching the most remote corners of the world with the gospel message.
But is the day of missionary aviation drawing to a close? Is it possible that what was once an essential transportation link for Western frontier missionaries has now become a luxury no longer affordable by the national church? Has aviation created dependence on a transportation infrastructure that newly planted national churches in remote areas cannot sustain? With the focus of world missions shifting from remote tribal people to the megacities of the 10/40 Window, is supporting a costly air transport ministry the best use of the mission dollar? In addition to the changes in Christian missions, have political instability, warfare, costly evacuations and skyrocketing fuel prices created an environment that simply makes missionary aviation no longer viable?
These are all tough questions that many aircraft-using mission organizations, and those supporting them, are asking.
One of the first mission aviators was George Fisk, with the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Borneo. His use of a stagger-wing Beechcraft plane on floats dramatically opened up the impenetrable jungles of the interior of that island and helped his mission evangelize the Diak headhunters of the Krayan and Apokayan valleys. After hearing George’s story, a handful of ex-military pilots became inspired to found the Christian Airmen’s Missionary Fellowship, which later became Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF).
On February 23, 1946, the mission’s first pilot, Betty Green, took off on MAF’s maiden flight from southern California to Mexico. Betty had trained in the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilot program of the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. Within a few short years, missionary aviation efforts had been initiated in all three major tropical regions of the world, making it possible for pioneer efforts to reach remote areas, often totally inaccessible by other means.
Then, in 1956, the world was shocked by the tragic news that five young men had been martyred on a beach along the Cururay River in Ecuador at the hands of the Waorani1 Indians. This incident, and particularly the story of MAF pilot Nate Saint portrayed in Life magazine, catapulted the whole concept of missionary aviation into the consciousness of Christians everywhere. Soon mission organizations using aircraft were flooded with young men wanting to take Nate’s place and use their technical skills for the cause of Christ. Some mission endeavors added an aviation component to their existing portfolio of ministries, including Africa Inland Mission (AIM-AIR), Sudan Interior Mission (SIM-AIR), New Tribes (NTM-Air) and Wycliffe Bible Translators (JAARS). MAF became a ministry exclusively of aviation specialists. Their purpose was to serve any evangelical mission that needed light air transport to accomplish its objectives. Groups in other countries followed suit with the formation of MAF-Europe, MAF-Australia and Helimission in Switzerland.
The goal of these early missionary aviation efforts was to “speed the Gospel” to the ends of the earth. They did so with dramatic success! By the mid-1960s, just fifteen years after Betty Green’s inaugural flight, well-established national churches were flourishing in the interiors of Brazil’s Amazon region, Belgian Congo’s vast rain forest and among the tribes of Papua New Guinea. Today, there are some sixty mission organizations employing several hundred aircraft in ministry around the world.
But despite these impressive statistics, the dynamics for missionary aviation have changed since the days of George Fisk and Nate Saint. At least five factors cause people today to question whether missionary aviation continues to be practical.
1. Progress of surface transportation. In many places, previously impenetrable jungles, deserts or mountain regions can now be reached by a truck or four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser. Often loaded (or overloaded) to the gills, vehicles such as these can usually carry more passengers and cargo than a small aircraft. Even though some journeys take hours or days, and the travel may be far from comfortable, affordability makes surface transport the obvious choice for local people.
2. Passing the baton. After a half century of ministry, many Western missions have reached the point where their work in a particular area has concluded and national churches are ready to take the lead. Since many of these mission organizations specifically requested air support for their pioneering efforts, their departure often means that the plane is no longer needed.
3. Scale of economy. Since Western organizations funded the bulk of mission flying, pilots could offer highly subsidized fares to national evangelists. When local passengers became the only source of revenue, missionary aviation often moved out of the range of their affordability.
4. New mission frontiers. Missionary aviation has been closely identified with the classic mission frontiers of the mid-twentieth century. By the end of the century, however, the new frontiers of missions had clearly become the unreached people groups of the 10/40 Window, most of whom were accessible by a Boeing 747.
5. Training costs. Moody Bible Institute recently decided to close its Aviation training center in Elizabethton, Tennessee and move it to Spokane, Washington. They did this to take advantage of Spokane’s more economical flight and maintenance schools. This seems to indicate that training missionary pilots and mechanics is no longer affordable even by Western mission agencies.
For all of these reasons, it is little wonder that the “Nate Saint” type of air transport is now considered by many as passé and no longer needed. Nor is it surprising that once loyal supporters of missionary aviation are now concerned that the necessary subsidies that make aviation affordable to the national church are evolving into a “black hole” for their donor dollar.
A PILOT’S VIEW
As is often the case, what looks one way on the ground has a very different appearance when viewed from a pilot’s seat several thousand feet in the air. Similarly, from my “pilot’s perspective,” I believe that missionary aviation is still viable and vital for at least five reasons.
1. The world is not as accessible as you might think. Although it is true that most megacities can be easily reached on a commercial jetliner, it is also true that access to a region two hundred, one hundred or even fifty miles outside that city can be very difficult. A person can ride a “maglev” bullet train in Shanghai and not be aware that traveling the same distance in regions of the Yunan Province might take several grueling days on a bus with only plywood sleeper bunks to lie on. Another person in a comfortable pressurized aircraft taking a mountain flight tour in Nepal might forget that right below, people walk for up to twelve days one way to reach the remote villages of the Himalayas.
2. Roads are disappearing faster than you might think. Progress is not universal. When we see the development of roads in remote areas of the world, it may be incorrect to assume that surface transportation is just going to get better.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the progress of a highway system has actually gone backwards at an increasing rate. What was not long ago a comfortable, two-day journey across the vast country is not even traversable today. Bridges are gone, ferryboats have either disappeared or are in disrepair, and the jungle has reclaimed thousands of miles of single-lane roads. Central Africa Republic, Chad, Sudan, Laos, Myanmar and Suriname are all known to have similar reverse trends in highway networks.
3. Mission aviation is not as unaffordable as you might think. There are many cases where, even after the foreigners are gone, air transport continues to be the most cost-effective means of travel.
For example, in eastern Kalimantan the only alternative to a ninety-minute flight from the Apokyan Valley to the coast is an eight-day trek on foot over incredibly rugged, forested mountains. In the central part of the same island, where seven parallel rivers run north to south, getting from one river to the next involves a week-long excursion in a boat down to the ocean and then up the next river. The same trip can be done with a fifteen-minute flight in an MAF floatplane.
Pilot Wilson Kannenburg of Asas de Socorro (Wings of Help) in Brazil, reports that chartering an open-air, motorized canoe for a journey on the winding tributaries of the Amazon River cost the same per straight-line mile as his Cessna 206 floatplane! That does not even take into account the added expense of several meals and having to deal with the tropical sun and malaria-infested mosquitoes that come standard on a multi-day river voyage.
In his doctoral dissertation, “Only By Air,” Scott Zibell documented the conditions that lead people to find community air service attractive and affordable (Zibell 2001). Besides ruggedness of terrain, type of land cover and security hazards, he claims the bottom line is the transportation alternative. Where there are no other good alternatives to missionary aviation, national people still find the airplane their transport of choice.
4. There are more national aviation initiatives than you might think. Today there is a proliferation of national aviation initiatives managed, staffed and funded entirely by nationals. The largest of these is Asas de Socorro in Brazil, which not only manages five bases along the Amazon River basin, but also runs a flight training school in Anapolis with some twenty students from various Latin American countries. Other spin-offs of former MAF-US programs exist in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Suriname and Brazil. In Africa, MAF-Europe is assisting similar initiatives in Ethiopia and South Africa. Independent, indigenous flight programs that assist church ministry also exist in South Korea and the Philippines. All of these give ample proof that missionary aviation is certainly not something that only Western mission organizations can manage or fund successfully.
5. Missionary aviation is more responsive to new frontiers than you might think. There are vast areas of the 10/40 Window that are inaccessible due to significant geographic barriers. It may be relatively easy to reach the teeming millions of Bombay, Calcutta or Kuala Lampur, but the same is not true for those living in the highlands of Laos, Myanmar or Tibet. Even in a country like Morocco, where mission work has thrived for years in the populated coastal cities, not a single church has been planted among the Berber people of the Atlas Mountains. This is due in part to the ruggedness of the terrain. The same goes for outreach in Niger where missions have ministered for over one hundred years in the south but have left virtually untouched the people living in the remote mountains north of Agadez. Recognizing this fact, MAF-US, along with its European and Australian counterparts, have initiated their last ten new programs precisely in regions the mission world claims should be our primary concern. These include projects in North Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, Mongolia and Southeast Asia. It is clear that they have only scratched the surface in this part of the world. With the explosion of the church in China, national missionaries will soon be making their way to the remote areas of Tibet and the Xinjiang Desert. It will not be long before churches planted in the larger cities of Siberia will be ready to conduct their own outreach to the more remote villages of that vast region. Is it possible that missionary aviation may be a primary entry point to the rugged, arid deserts of the Islamic Middle East?
For all of these reasons, it is evident that the era of missionary aviation is far from over and that it is not exclusively a ministry in the tribal areas of the world. However, for missionary aviation to respond to the changing dynamics in missions, let alone the changing dynamics of the world itself, it cannot expect to conduct business the way it has always done. There are at least four different “wineskins” that need to be considered for air service to remain a viable tool for ministry outreach.
1. The “Nate Saint” skin. Just because the church has been planted in many tribal areas and the foreign missionary has left does not mean air transport is no longer needed. The very geographic barriers that made it difficult to reach these places in the first place are now making it equally difficult to help sustain a healthy and well-discipled church.
This is particularly true as we watch the second and even third generational change take place. The impact of globalization, including satellite TV and drugs, can today reach the most remote corners on earth. In other tribal areas, a resurgence of pagan practices is on the rise, posing a direct threat to isolated churches. Without adequate linkage to the rest of the global Christian community, fledgling church plants in these areas have little hope of surviving long term. Traditional missionary aviation has been—and remains—a good means of providing the bridge for such remote communities.
2. The NGO skin. Many of the calls for aviation have been the result of relief needs caused by human and natural disasters. Such organizations as Air Serv and PACTEC (Partners in Aviation and Communication Technology) have often been called on by NGOs to meet their air transport needs during these times of crisis.
Relief and development work often provides unusual opportunities to minister among people who otherwise are extremely closed to the gospel. For this reason, missionary aviation organizations should consider the NGO skin as an important option. They should have qualified staff ready and waiting to respond quickly with technical ability and a willingness to minister to the unreached.
3. The commercial air service skin. Many of today’s mission frontiers will simply not allow air service to be conducted in the traditional missionary aviation paradigm. However, countries like China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia clearly understand the benefit of commercial endeavors and foreign investment.
There are a number of opportunities today for missionary aviation organizations to initiate commercial air service in places where no such service exists. Where local economies can support it, well-designed and managed community air services using smaller six to twelve-passenger aircraft could be very successful. With careful planning, such initiatives would provide a solution to the transportation access problems in the very areas where mission and church workers are struggling today. Additionally, a commercial endeavor can provide meaningful jobs and a platform for discipleship of new believers.
4. The catalyst skin. Instead of conducting flight operations themselves, Western agencies could consider helping to initiate totally indigenous flight programs. By providing a brotherly approach to training and consulting with current or retired airline personnel, organizations like MAF can perform a midwife role and help give birth to national initiatives. By linking them into an international network of community aviation, westerners can maintain a significant ongoing mentoring ministry so that local efforts maintain high standards of integrity and safety.
Nate Saint coined the phrase, “conquering jungle barriers,” an apt description of the unique role missionary aviation has in serving the church worldwide. There is no question that role continues today. However, the questions challenging missionary aviation’s continued viability are not only appropriate, but essential. They are the only way to continue honing this instrument in God’s Great Commission toolbox so it remains sharp and effective. By keeping its focus clearly on the inaccessible areas of the world—and by fitting itself in whatever new wineskin God provides—missionary aviation will continue to be a significant link to the world’s pockets of forgotten, unreached peoples for many years.
1. At that time referred to as the Auca, a derogatory term that is inappropriate.
Zibell, Scott. 2001. “Only By Air.” PhD Dissertation, University of South Carolina. Charleston, South Carolina.
Jon Lewis is president/CEO of Partners International. From 1977 to 2003 he served with MAF as mission pilot, program manager, Africa director and vice president of Research and Strategic Planning.
LEAPING TIGER AIRWAYS
Leaping Tiger Airways Flight 141 descends below the green hills and the ten-passenger Quest Kodiak aircraft smoothly touches down on the main runway of the regional airport. The young pilot climbs out of the cockpit and, in typical Chinese fashion, stands at attention to salute the departing passengers. He pauses to shake the hand of Pastor Lu Chin, whose team of young people has just flown home from a week of special meetings in the remote villages of the neighboring river valley. Glancing across the airfield, the pilot notices his former flight instructor, Wayne Swanson, a retired Delta Airlines captain, giving the thumbs-up signal to a student pilot ready for his first solo flight. The pilot smiles as he thinks of how Wayne not only helped him through his years of flight instruction, but also led him to personal faith in Jesus Christ. It was also Wayne who introduced him to the three Christian businessmen from Shanghai who dreamed of starting Leaping Tiger Airways. After two years, he has seen the company grow into a successful regional airline for the province. It has also given him a platform for a personal ministry with people living in many remote communities of the region. He can’t wait until next year, when the airline will be expanding its service into the eastern part of the Tibet plateau. What a privilege it is to be able to offer affordable community air transportation to the minority peoples of China and, at the same time, share with them the love of Christ.
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