The Fighter Pilots Who Took Charity to the Skies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these pilots risked their lives for a higher cause.
By Nick Fouriezos
Brian Shepson says a quick prayer and shouts, “Clear!” His Cessna 208 stutters to life like an old motorboat, and he reads aloud from a checklist laminated to his control wheel: trims good, flaps good … There’s a no-smoking sign by the passenger seat. “We tell passengers that if they must smoke, please step outside,” he jokes.
Moments later, the single-engine plane lurches down the runway before floating into the sky on its journey 5,500 feet upward. It’s a shallow flight, offering a perfect view of the irrigated squares of Idaho farmland below — wheat, barley, sugar beets and, of course, potatoes — that give way to the foothills north of Boise. He passes desert sagebrush, pine trees, roiling white-water rapids and dozens of makeshift runways etched into the sides of mountains.
This majestic landscape has provided the perfect, longtime backdrop for training Mission Aviation Fellowship’s missionary pilots. The Christian charity has sent hundreds of pilots to serve 17 bases around the globe — in Africa, Asia, Eurasia and Latin America — flying more than 2 million nautical miles every year. They swoop in with aerial medical care, disaster relief and community-building know-how to some of the most remote places in the world.
Formed at the end of World War II by American and British pilots seeking to use their wartime skills for good, the small operation has become a Forrest Gump of aid efforts. Its pilots flew to the rescue during the devastating 1991 earthquakes in Indonesia and the 2008 floods and 2010 earthquakes in Haiti, and at the height of the Ebola crisis in Africa. Their work has at times been controversial, with some criticizing their conversion efforts as thinly veiled cultural colonialism. Yet the private, donation-driven nonprofit stands out as America’s role in the global community is being reconsidered amid severe foreign aid cuts under President Donald Trump.
The early 1940s were a groundbreaking time for aviation. As the men of the Greatest Generation earned fame for aerial exploits, more than 1,000 women volunteered to serve as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). Their job was to free men up for combat by doing necessary home-front flights. One female pilot, Betty Greene, a Seattle native in her mid-20s, flew some of the decade’s newest planes and was one of the first to test experimental high-altitude flights.
Babies are dying, women are dying in childbirth, people have parasites, they don’t have clean water and they are begging for us to come.
MAF communication officer Dianna Gibney
When the war ended, Greene and women pilots like her had few opportunities. Wanting to marry her expertise with her Presbyterian faith, she helped found the organization that would soon be renamed Mission Aviation Fellowship. With only one plane at their disposal, a red 1933 Waco biplane, the fellowship had humble ambitions: to provide flight support for missionaries working as translators for indigenous tribes in the Mexican jungle. On February 23, 1946, she piloted MAF’s first flight to Mexico City from its nascent headquarters in the Los Angeles area.
The early missionaries were motivated by a desire to proselytize, but dreamers like Greene also touted a basic appreciation for a globalism made possible only by feats such as 1945’s first round-the-world flight. “There was no attempt to change” the language, customs or clothing of the locals, Greene wrote in her autobiography, Flying High, and yet “when a language is reduced to writing it gives dignity to the people who speak it,” she argued. It was a tacit acknowledgment of those who criticized groups like hers as fly-by evangelism. MAF still faces such criticism, says communication officer Dianna Gibney, who notes that its missionaries don’t just preach, but serve, sometimes for decades. “Babies are dying, women are dying in childbirth, people have parasites, they don’t have clean water and they are begging for us to come,” Gibney says.
The experiences of Greene — who flew for 16 years, touching down in 20 countries and becoming the first woman to fly over the Andes and pilot a plane in Sudan — formed the backbone of the fellowship (she died in 1997). Watching trainees go through “jungle camp” helped inform the organization’s modern “language camp,” in which present-day missionaries spend nine months embedded in their service country, learning the native tongue and culture before starting their work. Mechanical errors and, in one case, an emergency crash landing by Greene on the Napo River in the Amazon led to future pilots being trained to service and repair their planes in the field. When the Peruvian government in 1946 supplied the fuel and upkeep for an amphibious “Duck” biplane to provide education and health services to remote tribes, it offered a model for MAF relationships with other governments. In the years to come, the organization not only transported doctors, but also teachers, voting ballots and identification documents.
The fellowship grew slowly, and as Greene’s exploits multiplied, another young pilot was earning his wings. Nate Saint, a commercial pilot who had served three years stateside in the U.S. Army, joined MAF and opened its first base in Ecuador, living there with his wife and three children. Blessed with the looks of an All-American quarterback and the charisma to match, Saint would also push MAF to new heights, albeit at a higher personal cost.
A natural mechanic, the ambitious pilot became known for ingenuity. The MAF credits him with inventing the dual-injection engine, still in use today, which burns fuel more efficiently and provides a backup spark if an engine fails in midair. He is popularly known as the inventor of a technique called “the bucket drop,” which he perfected in California with a fishing reel and an electric drill motor. Saint discovered that, by flying in circles while lowering a basket on a single line, he could create a spiral that kept the basket centered on its descent. It was more precise than parachute drops, keeping the package intact while plummeting from planes moving as fast as 100 miles per hour. Just last year, the Air Force reportedly revived the technique as a possible method for delivering and retrieving drones.
Of course, Saint had different uses in mind. In October 1955, he began 13 weekly drops full of gifts for the Waorani, an Ecuadorean tribe known for its violence against outsiders. His strategy worked at first, with the missionaries delivering penicillin to treat a vicious jungle virus ravaging the tribe. The aid was received warmly — but that soon boiled over to distrust. In January 1956, Saint landed near the village of the Waorani — then called the Aucas — to attempt a face-to-face meeting. Instead of talking, the tribesmen killed him and four other missionaries on what became known as Palm Beach.
Their martyrdom, as the organization describes it, was read around the world — Life magazine published a 10-page photo essay about the murders. Saint’s colleagues returned to the Waorani, converting some, including a few of the killers, as new volunteers sprung up around the globe. Suddenly, the fellowship had more resources and pilots than ever before. “We still have young people who come to MAF who say, ‘It was [Saint’s] story that encouraged me to come,’” says Gene Jordan, MAF’s vice president of human resources. Until then, the financially limited organization could only supplement existing missionary operations. As it grew, the fellowship could do more on its own. Finally, Jordan adds, it had the resources to ask: “Where do we need to help, where can we put people?”
That mindset has since placed missionary pilots around the globe — men like Shepson, the fellowship’s chief pilot, who is training the next generation. As he flies over Horseshoe Bend, a gushing river town near the southern Garden Valley, he remembers flying in the hazardous wilds of Ecuador — over deserts and rain forests, high plateaus, glacier peaks and active volcanoes. His cargo has included everything from rice bags to livestock. Once, he flew a plane full of poisonous snakes, part of an effort to remove the region’s venomous reptiles. “Definitely a Snakes on a Plane moment,” Shepson says. With more than 180 airstrips, some little more than tiny scratches in the jungle, MAF planes were by far the most efficient travel for local government officials and aid workers.
Whether it’s in Ecuador, Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, most of the fellowship’s work tends to be medical evacuations. Serving primarily in the late ’80s and ’90s, Shepson remembers fishing accidents as being especially gruesome: Fishermen would light half a stick of dynamite and throw it in the water, stunning the fish, which would float to the surface. This worked well … if nobody lost a limb. Once, a Central Asian mountain village had a meningitis outbreak in the middle of winter, a time when the region was virtually inaccessible to cars. The missionaries packed 300 glass medical vials in six Styrofoam blocks and dropped them from a height of 50 to 100 feet, using a method similar to the one perfected by Saint decades before. “Our poor guys almost froze to death because they had to do the whole flight with the door off,” Shepson recalls, but their efforts saved lives.
On a happier note, Jordan remembers flying a premature baby, not much bigger than his hand, to a nearby hospital. “We gave her, literally, her life back,” he says. Mike Brown, the director of the Papua, Indonesia, program, finds joy in taking indigenous people on their very first flights: “To them, this world is the community where they can walk to. But now we’ve flown some of these people out to the hospital, and their world has just increased drastically.” Still, many missionaries felt isolated at times. Phone calls, even Skype, are more available now. But access to even primitive email was spotty just a decade ago, and missionaries used to wait months for mail from loved ones. “I don’t think we missed much terribly, until 9/11,” says Barb Dukes, an MAF missionary who served almost two decades in Indonesia. “Then we felt very far away.”
In 2006, the high-flying missionaries moved from Redlands, California, to Nampa, Idaho, outside Boise. It was a spiritual and economic fit, after years of sending their pilots to train there — after all, the flying tradition of the Gem State includes it being the only contiguous U.S. state to still offer mail delivery by air. “This time, I’ll do a short-distance landing,” Shepson says, a crucial maneuver for his pilots. He descends … slows to 55 knots, then 25 knots and eases to the ground, breaking hard, his wheels touching perfectly at the “piano keys,” white-painted strips that mark 500 feet. And, just like that, the missionary is home again.