By CHRIS BURGESS
The Cessna 206 soared past the ridge and immediately plunged into a narrow canyon. Rocks melded into a reddish blur as the pilot-in-training aimed for a thin grass strip tucked amid the canyon walls. He relayed a mock mayday message into the radio before zooming past the airstrip and out of the ravine.
This simulated engine failure is one of many exercises a prospective pilot performs in the Idaho backcountry before serving overseas with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). But there are other steps a pilot must complete before even arriving at the non-profit organization’s headquarters in Nampa, Idaho.
MAF is a Christian organization that partners with more than 600 organizations in 14 different countries to bring physical and spiritual help to people living in isolated regions. Using aviation and technology, MAF’s staff provides access to medical care, community development, disaster relief, and the Gospel message for otherwise unreachable places.
Ron Hilbrands has been with MAF for 31 years. He has served as a pilot-mechanic in Indonesia and Lesotho and is now MAF’s manager of recruiting. Hilbrands offers some insight into mission aviation and the process of becoming a missionary pilot with MAF.
Q: What is different about missionary aviation?
RON HILBRANDS: The biggest differences are the cross-cultural aspects and the motivation for our work. We’re flying small airplanes, but we do it in remote places in a cross-cultural context. And we have a very good safety record because of the training we do. We’re flying into unimproved strips — grass, gravel, sloped — most general aviation guys would probably never fly into the types of airstrips we go into.
Also, the motivation of our pilots is very different, in that our whole attitude is one of service, of wanting others to have the chance to hear the Gospel.
Q: What are the requirements to become an MAF pilot?
RH: MAF is a Christian organization so our requirements start with pilots having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is the first priority.
The other things are what I call the big three: Number one, they have to have an A&P mechanics license; number two they need to have a minimum of 400 hours total flying time with a commercial license and instrument rating with a minimum of 50 hours high-performance time; and the third thing is that we do require Bible training — at least 12 college-level credit hours of Bible classes or the equivalent.
Q: Why do you focus on recruiting pilot-mechanics?
RH: MAF likes to recruit pilot-mechanics, where our staff pilots are also mechanics, because we are not always able to recruit enough mechanics. From the founding of our organization, it’s always been harder getting mechanics than pilots. MAF decided that in order to meet the maintenance needs for our aircraft, we would require the pilot to also have his mechanics license. That model has worked well for us for 68 years.
RH: We have all types of personalities within MAF, but the most successful missionary pilot will be someone with a servant’s heart and a certain amount of flexibility. Someone who is also a learner — doesn’t know it all, but is always willing to learn. They also need to be technically competent and be a spiritually mature Christian.
We have the full gamut of people contacting us to serve. I mean, I have had junior high kids contact me and ask what they can do to prepare to become a missionary pilot. And I treat them with as much validity as I do college students. There are a lot of MAF staff who knew in junior high that they were going to become missionary pilots. We hear from many college-age or high school students, but we also talk to experienced aviators — men and women who are in the military or are commercial pilots. We talk to the whole range — those that have 10,000 hours of flying to inexperienced junior high kids.
Q: How do MAF pilots get funded?
RH: At MAF, all our pilots and other overseas staff raise their own financial support before heading to the field. People are often scared about raising support. But the really cool thing is that MAF’s ministry partnership department trains and works with them so that when they go out to raise support, they go out with the confidence that they know what they are doing.
Q: How long does it usually take to go through the recruitment process?
RH: It depends on what you want to call “the start.” I’ve seen it take eight to 10 years in terms of someone starting his or her training, going through the process and then going to the field. But if you are talking about someone coming to MAF with all the technical requirements — the A&P, the hours, and the commercial license — it may take just a few years…several months going through the evaluation and acceptance process and then a year or so raising financial support, and then the final training before going overseas —where they spend the first year in language school.
RH: From a human and financial perspective, it doesn’t make sense, does it? You invest time and expense in technical training, then you have to go out and raise your own support! Yet I have seen people leave very good jobs in order to serve as missionary pilots in difficult locations with few comforts. It requires a strong commitment and a certainty that you are called by God to do this. We believe that it’s really worth it at the end. After all this training and all this stuff that they have to do, they have a fulfilling life doing what they feel like they are good at and doing it for the sake of expanding God’s Kingdom. When you look at those kind of things, it really is worth it.
It is a long road for missionary pilots to make it to MAF’s Idaho headquarters where they zip through canyons and practice landing on gravel airstrips in the backcountry, but Idaho is not the final destination. MAF pilots go on to serve in some of the most remote places on earth — from Africa to Indonesia to Central Asia and Latin America. They fly church leaders, doctors, medical supplies, community developers, missionaries, and others to and from places that would otherwise be inaccessible.
For MAF pilots, bringing help and hope to the people living in isolation is ultimately worth the long years of training and preparation.