Flying Unfriendly Skies

"Recent tragedy highlights courage, risks of mission aviators"
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Dennis Fulton's closest call as a missionary pilot wasn't amid a hail of bullets during a flight but with armed, drunken soldiers on an airfield in the central African country of Zaire. They threatened to shoot.


"We have had hijacking; we have had hostages in the history of our organization," says Fulton, now chief operating officer of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). The Redlands, California-based ministry support organization operates more than 70 aircraft in remote regions of 24 countries. Last year it logged 41,000 flights.

But generally, he says, "Getting shot out of the sky is not a big concern." Only six MAF planes have ever been hit by gunfire, and none of those crashed. "Being shot on the ground is another story. I'm much more concerned about driving from the house to the airport on the roads in a lot of these countries."

On April 20, a Peruvian Air Force plane downed a Cessna belonging to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), mistaking it for a drug-running craft. While the tragic deaths of ABWE missionary Veronica Bowers, 35, and her

7-month-old adopted daughter Charity may prompt agencies to rethink safety and security issues, representatives agree that doing everything by the book, as the ABWE Cessna's pilot Kevin Donaldson apparently did, does not guarantee safety.

"We feel that this is an isolated incident," says Arthur Lightbody, vice president of communications for JAARS (formerly the Jungle Aviation and Research Service), the Waxhaw, North Carolina-based aviation arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators. JAARS-trained pilots in 10 countries average 15,000 flights a year.

"Missions are used to chaos," Fulton says, citing corruption and crumbling infrastructure in many ...

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