Changing Airplanes, Unchanging Mission

When WWII pilots envisioned using small aircraft to help the gospel spread to hard-to-reach areas, could they have imagined what missionary aviation looks like today? Could MAF’s founders have conceived of the complexity of the tools—the aircraft—that now make up the MAF fleet?

Now, more than 75 years after the start of MAF’s ministry, its aircraft have changed dramatically. But one thing that has not changed is MAF’s mission*—to share the love of Jesus Christ so that isolated people will be physically and spiritually transformed.

The Beginnings (1945 – 1965)

Fabric-covered airplanes like the Piper Cruiser, Piper Pacer, and the Stinson Voyager helped start the earliest programs, in Mexico and Central and South America. These light aircraft served remote jungle outposts where western missionary families were bringing the gospel to remote tribes. MAF pilot Nate Saint was passionate about reaching one tribe in particular—one that was feared as a “tribe of killers.” In 1948, he wrote to his parents that he expected the airplane would play a part in reaching them with the gospel.

Nate Saint works on a Stinson Voyager in Ecuador. Photo: MAF Archives.

His prediction proved true. In January 1956, Saint landed a bright yellow Piper Family Cruiser on a sandbar nicknamed Palm Beach, along the Curaray River. Initially, he and four other missionaries had friendly interactions with members of the feared Waorani. But then, days later, the world learned of the five men’s martyrdom at the hands of the tribe.

Far from slowing down the dream of those early WWII pilots, this incident catapulted the idea of missionary aviation across the globe. As a result, young Christians caught the vision of using airplanes to reach the lost—and MAF grew rapidly.


The Growing Years (1965 – 1990)

As MAF moved from fabric-covered to aluminum aircraft, small Cessna aircraft became the workhorses of the day.

In Indonesia, Cessna 185s and 206s served western missionaries and local evangelists in hard-to-reach areas, and the gospel continued to spread. These new birds nearly doubled the range and load of those earlier aircraft and opened more doors for physical healing, education, community development, and disaster relief to reach isolated people.

Villagers carry a young girl on a makeshift stretcher to an MAF airplane for a medical evacuation flight in Kalimantan, Indonesia, circa 1970s. Photo: MAF field photographer.

A second-generation MAF pilot, Dick Parrott, son of MAF founder/former president Grady Parrott, recalls opening the West Kalimantan, Indonesia, program in 1969 with a brand new C185, PK-MCB, that came to be known as “Charlie Brown.” As the sole pilot/mechanic on the program at the time, Dick was responsible for fixing and flying the airplane.

Of course, other pilots and airplanes followed, and the program expanded to East Kalimantan (now North Kalimantan) and, later, Central Kalimantan. Those small Cessnas brought physical healing to isolated people through a partnership with a Baptist mission hospital, and they enabled the training of 100,000 Dyak Christians through a theological education program. MAF also served a C&MA Bible school there.

A few years ago, when Dick learned that Charlie Brown was going to be removed from service, he was surprised.

“I was amazed that it was still in operation,” said Dick. “You know, MAF does a great job keeping their equipment operational.”

Over in Papua, Indonesia, MAF was continuing to serve western missionaries who were working on Bible translations. Along with the small Cessna airplanes, MAF introduced another aircraft to its fleet in 1976, the helicopter. This new tool helped missionaries survey still-unreached areas and allowed them to live remotely until an airstrip could be built.


Recent Years (1990s – 2020)

In more recent years, MAF introduced larger, more complex turbine-engine aircraft to its fleet—Cessna Caravans, Quest Kodiaks, and a PC-12. These brought another big jump in range and load capabilities, plus advanced technology that increased safety and efficiency. And, they use jet fuel, verses aviation gasoline (Avgas), which is more readily available overseas.

In March 2016, an MAF Caravan landed at the Todro airstrip in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It carried MAF staff, SIL missionaries and local dignitaries who had come to celebrate the completion of the Logoti-language New Testament—a project that moved forward with MAF’s help through years of war and insecurity.

MAF’s service spans multiple decades when it comes to bringing the gospel to a remote people group, serving missionaries working on a translation, delivering completed Bibles, and supporting local churches.

After MAF flights supported Bible translators working on completing the Bible in the Hupla language, these two birds — a Kodiak (left) and a Caravan — brought guests to the remote village of Soba, in Papua, Indonesia, for the Hupla-language Bible dedication in 2014. Photo by Mark and Kelly Hewes.

These decades of service typically represent multiple aircraft as well—the right aircraft for the job.

But no matter the airplane make, model, or size, each one serves a kingdom purpose—to reach isolated people with the love of Jesus Christ. And each one is meticulously maintained thanks to the support of people like you who have stood with us through the years; people who still believe that the airplane can play a part in introducing people to the gospel.


*When this story was written, we were still using our old vision and mission statements. In 2021 we rephrased them slightly, though the intent is the same.  You can see them here


  • Steven R. Russell says:

    Good Morning. Thank you for this interesting article. When Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and the other Missionary men were speared to death by the Auca Indian Tribe in Ecuador on Sunday, January 8, 1956, 64 years ago, my mother was very pregnant with me, as I was born the following March 31, 1956 in Palmdale, CA, when Dad, the Rev. James F. Russell, worked as a civilian aeronautical engineer inspector at Edwards AFB.

    That is where my parents felt the call to Mission Aviation, but as Dad candidated with MAF when Grady Parrott was President, Grady Parrott took Dad out to lunch, and said; “Sorry Jim, but the answer is ‘no’.” Dad wound up becoming an independent missionary pilot in Panama when the Canal Zone was in its hey day, with Maritime Faith Mission Fellowship, then Headquartered in Detroit, MI, so that we were able to attend church and schools in the Canal Zone.

    Dad flew an Aeronca Champion, a Cessna 170 with the Doyne conversion, a brand new 1967 Cessna 185 Skywagon, and finally a Cessna 206 Stationair, (Gospel Wings I, II, III, & IV).

    Dad went home to his eternal reward at age 90, on February 9, 2018, with a full Military Memorial Service with Honors, Presided over by the VFW, and my Navy Retired brother Ted Russell.

    It was good to see the picture of Grady Parrott with a Piper Pacer in Mexico for February, 2020, on the 2020 MAF wall calendar here, so that I know what he looked like.

    Today Dad and Grady Parrott are both in Heaven together with Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Billy Graham and all the other greats, along with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

    I am a 230 Hour Christian Private Pilot who hasn’t flown as Pilot In Command in 39 years since I was stationed at Shaw AFB, SC, in 1981, renting the Piper Arrow out of the Sumter, SC FBO to the East of the base.

    I don’t miss flying, and enjoy resting in the Lord, hearing aircraft fly over, and looking up to see the piston engine aircraft and jets fly over.

    • Donna says:

      Thank you for sharing your own personal experiences, Steven. The article itself was very interesting and helps those of us who are supporting missionary fliers to understand more of what they are doing. Your added comments put a very personal touch to the article. I admire all of you fliers, both past and present, for your work. God used and is using all of you in a very special way to help spread His gospel. God bless you all.

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