The fall fly-in of the Carolinas Virginia Antique Airplane Foundation (VAA3.org) in Camden, S.C., was just an hour south of Waxhaw, N.C., so my wife and I rerouted our travels from Raleigh to allow a stop by JAARS, the “Jungle and Aviation Radio Service,” located near this small town a few miles southeast of Charlotte.
Now known simply as JAARS, the organization provides aircraft and pilot/mechanics for Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL International and related missionary organizations around the world. If you have ever seen a demo flight of JAARS’ blue and white Helio Courier at an airshow, then you have an impression of the skills of these pilots trained to operate from some of the world’s most challenging airstrips.
The day of our visit coincided with one of JAARS’ regular open house events, allowing us a glimpse into the history of the organization’s effort to translate the Bible into the remaining 2,000 living languages (of 6,900 total) around the world for which no translation exists. In many cases, this requires Wycliffe specialists to first create a written language. Since most of these people live in remote locations in South America, the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and Africa where few airports exist, JAARS aircraft and pilots are unique, to say the least. Rare also in these regions are mechanics, which is why most JAARS pilots are also A&Ps.
When I mentioned to Terry Heffield, JAARS’ chief engineer and aviation recruiter, that I was interested in the Courier’s unique high-lift system, he invited me into his upstairs office/workshop. With a dozen Couriers still in use by JAARS, the organization maintains the largest fleet in the world. Since the manufacturer ceased operations many years ago, JAARS must build almost all of the Helio’s replacement parts. In the process it has obtained numerous STCs improving the plane’s capabilities, such as adding belly cargo pods, a new seat able to absorb higher impact loads, and a number of aerodynamic changes that improve the cruise speed and handling. With 100LL becoming scarce in many of the locations where its aircraft operate, JAARS is transitioning to turbine aircraft like the Quest Kodiak. It also is replacing the engines in another mission’s small C182 fleet with the new French SMA SR305 diesel, which burns Jet-A.
During our visit, JAARS’ second Kodiak was on display, resplendent in the organization’s sky-blue and white paint scheme. Heffield pointed with pride to the pilot’s seat, which is a totally different design from the one he had designed for the Courier. Soon after our visit, this Kodiak was flown to New Guinea where it joins JAARS’ first Kodiak, which has been in operation since September 2009.
As head of recruiting for JAARS Aviation, Heffield (left) described the prerequisites for pilot candidates: One must already possess commercial and instrument certificates, have at least 500 hours total time, and a valid Class II medical, tailwheel endorsement and high-performance. CFI, multi-engine, and rotorcraft are all added pluses. Since JAARS personnel perform most of their own maintenance, pilots with A&P certificates are clearly needed. It takes about four years from the time a candidate has been accepted, is trained to operate and maintain the aircraft they’ll be flying, learn the languages they’ll need, then be cleared to fly into all the tiny airstrips from which JAARS typically operates. The current JAARS fleet includes C206s, Helio Couriers, Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter and PC-12, King Air B200, Quest Kodiak, Robinson R44, and Bell Jet/LongRanger.
While JAARS pilots have one of the most challenging aviation jobs imaginable, their daily efforts are highly appreciated by those they serve. Far from being alone in remote locations, these pilots are accompanied by their families who play important support roles in the organization’s mission. My wife spoke with retired JAARS pilot Doug Deming and his wife on their 30 years in Peru: “We raised our children there and we all loved every minute of it.” Doug, who had flown a DC-3 for Montgomery Ward before joining JAARS, handed us a copy of “Cleared for Takeoff: 50 Stories from the Pen of a Jungle Pilot” written by his colleague, Bob Griffin. From the stories this delightful book contains, the Demings’ positive experiences in Peru were not unique.
Given the tough requirements, JAARS is always looking for new pilots who have what it takes. In contrast to most flying jobs these days, JAARS pilots fly well-maintained aircraft and enjoy excellent job security, many continue on in various roles after their flying days have ended, for instance performing demo flights around the country and meeting with the public as they did during our visit.
My only disappointment in visiting JAARS was Heffield’s response to whether they could use this 53-year-old taildragger pilot: “Sorry — you’re too old. By the time you’d be ready for our job, you’ll only be a few years away from retirement.” Oh well, if I were 20 years old again, I am sure I would consider applying.
Think you have what it takes to become a JAARS pilot? Contact Terry Heffield at email@example.com.
For more information: JAARS.org
Kent Misegades is co-author of the GAFuels blog at GeneralAviationNews.com, an aviation salesman for U-Fuel, and president of EAA Chapter 1114 in Apex, N.C.