When Your Engine Comes Apart …

Editor’s Note: John Miller served as an MAF pilot in Indonesia during the 1980s and 1990s. The following is an excerpt from one of his support letters detailing some engine trouble he once had in mid-flight.

Airplane being pushed up the airstrip

Airplane being pushed up the airstrip.

Dea Godschalk inspecting plane

Dea Godschalk inspecting plane

Fixing the plane

Fixing the plane

Three airplanes

Three airplanes

Thanks to Helen Godschalk for the photos.

It wasn’t fair, really. The news article I was reading was just getting interesting when my passenger turned the page before I had finished skimming it. Mind you, during flight, the pilot has to look outside and check the instruments, too, all while trying to peek out of the corner of his eye and steal a glance at the news magazine on a passenger’s lap. But if your passenger is a speed reader? Forget it. I was just going to have to subscribe.

Trusty Cessna Charlie Papa and occupants had just leveled out at 9,000 feet. We all settled down into the routine 35-minute flight to Sela Valley in the rugged eastern mountains of Papua. Let’s see: trim for cruise, engine cowl flaps closed, fuel selector to fuller tank, engine gauges OK. Now, where was I on that magazine story?

Without warning, the plane began to shake as smoke fumes poured into the cabin.

Since they say in-flight fires are no fun, I quickly shut down the sick engine and watched, fascinated, as a wayward chunk of metal punched a hole in the engine cowling. My not-so-trusty Cessna had just become a powerless glider with two anxious occupants over not-so-friendly real estate below. Yes, I’d say this was definitely turning out to be an abnormal flight with lots of distractions.

The fumes stopped and the banging noises subsided as the powerless engine slowed down. Keying the mic, I announced, “Mayday!” and asked if any MAF pilots were standing by. Jerry immediately responded and I briefed him on the situation. Heeding the advice of Pappy, my first flight instructor (“If the engine comes apart, land and investigate.”), I started on down; Jerry holding my hand by the radio on the other end.

My magazine reading passenger was finding the flight to be more interesting than any literature she had on her lap. Her large eyes inquired, What are you planning to do? By God’s providence, we were within gliding distance of the Holuwan airstrip five miles away. I assured her that we’d be OK and on the ground safely in a few minutes. High, with altitude to spare, we came gliding over the mission station. I never thought an ugly gravel airstrip could look so beautiful.

It was over in seconds. Crossed the end of the runway at 90 with half flaps, touched down a third of the way up the strip and rolled to a quick stop. The sound of silence. Good old terra firma––da firma da better. I keyed the mic and announced, “Charlie Papa on the ground.” Several radio voices chorused, “Praise the Lord!” Amen, I breathed fervently. On such a nice cool day, why was I sweating?

[What had happened? The No. 2 connecting rod had broken in half, thrashing large holes in the engine. Oil had spilled over the hot turbocharger causing the smoke fumes. Also, the rod attach bolts were missing. The plane had a three-foot wide oil slick down each side. Our chief mechanic suspects detonation or metal fatigue. I just suspect something broke!]


  • David Rask says:

    John forgot to mention that Holuwon Airstrip is a one way strip with 15% slope. Landing there with no power would create some very significant illusions and challenges. Pulling it off under pressure was no small feat.

    • Bob Johanson says:

      John was a new field pilot.. I was riding ‘shotgun’.. far Eastern highlands of Papua.. Ok Bap strip.. steeper than 15ft rise for each 100 ft (+>15%) John made a good approach and landing..BUT was slow in adding enuf power to climb/rollup to the ledge at the top of the strip. I reset the flaps, turned ‘her’ around before we slowed to a full stop even with full power and launched downhill, airborne again. John relanded.. again slow with adding power.. I retookoff again.. He did another good landing and this time added heavy throttle sucessfully reaching the parking ledge top. Imagine landing without ant power to assist a roll up the steep hill of a strip

      • John Miller says:

        Ok Bap airstrip at 6000′ elevation and 20% slope was intimidating to this new field pilot. But I had old timer Bob riding shotgun. I think your 18,000+ flying hours is still the MAF record. Touching down hot at 70 knots and then going to full throttle was for me so counter-intuitive. Complicating matters was that the engine’s turbocharger is so slow to respond at that altitude. Thanks for jokingly chiding me with “What about ‘Full Power!’ don’t you understand?” Thanks Bob; I finally “got it”.

  • Paul Bergen says:

    John is being a tad modest in all of this. You remember Sully Sullenberger and his amazing landing on the Hudson? For those of us that know this airstrip,and the conditions, this easily rivals that event. Just a smaller airplane with fewer people, just as precious cargo and a lot less hoopla when it was all over. All of our hats are OFF to you John! That was an amazing feat. However, did you ever get to finish the article?

  • Joy Blomberg says:

    I well remember that day. I was flight following and was praying from the time John made the mayday call. In his calm, professional manner he made altitude and position reports over the radio all the way to touchdown. John later said that was probably the only time he was within gliding distance of an airstrip that day.

    • John Miller says:

      Ah, yes, you were also doing radio flight following the day my helo gave up the ghost. Joy, you’re always there for me…..or maybe you’re just bad luck(?!).
      And yes, there were just a few minutes during that flight we were within gliding distance of an airstrip, and Holuwan wasn’t fogged in per usual, that time of day, time of year. God’s total soverignty!

  • Dave Dresser says:

    My family had the pleasure of having John pilot many of the our flights while my parents were serving as missionaries in Indonesia. John was amongst a group of fantastic pilots who served with MAF. We will always be thankful for their service and support of the mission work my parents and others were/ are involved with.

  • John Wilson says:

    We were there on the ground. I saw this plane passing overhead making a strange sound and called “Plane overhead Holuwon”. John Miller calmy replied: “Good morning John. This is Charlie Papa. We’ve just had an engine failure and will be landing there shortly!” He circled, did a dog-leg to lose altitude and came in right on target for a smooth landing. A memorable day, for sure.

  • John Wilson says:

    One more thing. The Yalis in the villages below John when the engine failed, described seeing a strange rainbow effect behind the plane (probably the trail of oil droplets). They immediately sensed something was wrong so they started calling out to God to protect the pilot and passengers. That is an important side to the story: God’s care along with John’s calm skill. At Holuwon there was a godly lady who looked after the strip. I often observed her praying before going to work on it and asked what she prayed for. “I pray God will protect the pilots and keep the planes flying as they serve him in this way to bring the gospel to us!”

  • Ann Tucker says:

    I think that most of us in Iran/Papua at the time will forever remember that day. Paul Bergen, when Sully landed his plane on the Hudson, both my husband and I commented on the feats the MAF pilots acheived and in particular, John’s “terra firma – da firma, da better”.

  • Ingrid says:

    Thanks to John Miller’s skill and God’s grace, my mother made it through that event alive!

    Thank you!

    Ingrid (Godschalk) Miller

  • Dea Godschalk says:

    That was the most ‘interesting’ flight in my life and I’ll never forget that one.
    We thank the Lord for pilots like you, John.
    Too bad that you couldn’t finish reading your paragraph………
    I am still alive and well.
    Your passenger.
    Dea Godschalk

    • John Miller says:

      Pilots always feel badly when we scare our passengers in bad weather, whatever….but you get the Pucker Factor Award for staying calm. And I’m glad you chose to stay onboard all the way down, and not jump out and go for help — made me feel less lonely.
      Glad you’re doing well and Hi to Jan!

  • Chris says:

    Now, Who still has a copy of John’s news letter when he crashed the Heli in the swamp, because that makes for great reading also.

    • John Miller says:

      Hi Chris,
      That helo engine failure in the Hughes 500 occurred a year before, in the same month. After the C206 engine failure, perhaps MAF was considering giving me that month off in the future — just to spare the fleet (?). “Go to the beach, anywhere….just stay away from our airplanes!” (^_^)

  • Elinor Young says:

    I was by the radio at Korupun just to keep track as John proceeded to Sela just over the mountain. Could not believe what was happening! All of us listening certainly recognized God’s hand on John’s on the controls.

  • Malcolm Wilson says:

    AS an MK I have many fond memories (and a few nervous ones) flying to and from school, fixed wing and helicopter. As a child I held John Miller in awe, akin to a western child idolizing an athlete. His calm demeanor gave a scared little boy some peace, and as I think back my sense of awe is not lessened as I recall some of those flights. In particular I remember it was the end of the summer break and we (and the Clark boys at Lolat had been weathered in for dys, unable to get to school in Sentani. I will never forget the sight of the Hughes 500 emerging from the thick fog, lights flashing and mist swirling in the wash. John had followed a path up from the river valley floor and made it into Holuown. Thanks for the many safe flights and happy memories John Miller!

  • Elwyn D. Draper says:

    As a long-time missions committee member and chairman at John’s home church, I have always been impressed with his skill and bravery. I have often laughed at his inimitable Miller-esque way of humorously understating his heroics. John, we are proud of you and your service to our Lord over these many years.

  • Jim Parkinson says:

    Before John and Cora Lou joined MAF, John was my first flight instructor at Rostraver Airport(formerly P53)in Pennsylvania. We were on short final when a Mooney M22 proceeded to taxi onto the opposite end of the runway and start its take off roll directly toward us. John calmly said “I have the airplane,” executed a tight 360-degree-right-turn rolling out beneath the climbing Mooney and handed the controls back to me and we landed like as if nothing had happened. John has always been calm under fire. (O, and John, if you read this, it was Woody who was flying the M22)

  • Loretta Royce says:

    Thanks for sharing this with me, John. I’m sure I read the story many years ago via your prayer letter, and Ron and I rejoiced with you for the great ending God and you brought about. Today reading this blog reminds me of some of your other stories and the great aviator who helped get you where you are today. The “legacy lives on”.

    • John Miller says:

      I’m sure the hundreds of missionary pilots serving around the world trained at Moody Aviation by your husband Ron (now in Jesus’ presence) would agree that no one has made a more profound and lasting contribution to aviation safety & professionalism than Ron.
      My 24 years of safe flying in Irian Jaya/Papua are a result of God’s sovereignty & Ron Royce’s superb instruction — and we all miss him.

  • Kathie Brown says:

    Remembering those Interesting Landings and Flights that you and Cora Lou have survived because of God’s protection and grace…….Lots of letters and PRAYERS . Kathie

  • Daniel Ajamiseba says:

    Hey John,
    That was a great testimony of your calm & “cool” courage and faith in our God. Thank you for sharing the story. It is really about God’s faithfulness, grace & mercy to one of His dedicated, faithful servants of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to my/our people in Papua, especially in Sela Valley & Hollowan. It brings back great/sweet memories of good friends, brothers & sisters like the Godschalks, the Wilsons (the Yali Wilsons), Jerry Reeder ( a great friend of mine who was also in this story).
    John Wilson: Thank you for that awesome testimony of that godly Yali lady. I was touched & cried when I read that account. Thanks & God bless & keep you/us all.

  • Carol Miller Azurmendi says:

    I have the most amazing Uncle John in the world, y’all!

  • Joe Miller says:

    Hey Pop you are hilarious. Some of the best father/son memories I have took place fighting weather coming up the South Gap in MCA/CP/CR, or dropping into the Whistle Lakes in MCE, watching the sunrise over the North Gap getting retreating blade stall in AL/AM..the list goes on. Loved the time you took Kevin Lynne and I to Bali to ferry the 206 back to Irian. God also showed his mighty wonder that late afternoon when you were heading to Karubaga with Mr. Macris and was it Mr. Dekker?? Spending the night at the little village south of Holowan with the chopper and the SAR for Arlan continued to remind me that the mission for the lost was and still is worth the price. Uncle Bob Johanson’s saying of being a cup bearer in the kings court and never spilling a drop. Pop that was you.

    • Joe Miller says:

      One other comment – is that Dog Gone your Hide Ried working on the plane

      • John Miller says:

        Yup, that’s super-wrench Blast-Your-Hide Jim Reid helping change the engine. Jim & Jean served several terms in the helo & fixed-wing programs.

  • John,

    I always knew that you were a good pilot, and during my younger days in the Army, I was a little jealous of that But, it has been since that I really felt that your calling should be writing, because you are such a wonderful writer. Now this:

    The Blonde Pilot..

    This is the story of the blonde flying in a two seater airplane with just the pilot.

    He has a heart attack and dies. She, frantic, calls out a May Day.

    “May Day! May Day! Help me! Help me! My pilot had a heart attack and is dead.

    And I don’t know how to fly. Help me! Please help me!”

    She hears a voice over the radio saying:

    “This is Air Traffic Control and I have you loud and clear. I will talk you through this and get you back on the ground. I’ve had a lot of experience with this kind of problem.

    ‘Now, just take a deep breath. Everything will be fine! Now give me your height and position.”

    She says, “I’m 5’4″ and I support Obama.”

    “O.K.” says the voice on the radio….

    “Repeat after me: Our Father. . Who art in Heaven. . . ..”

  • Joan Miller says:


    I’m so very happy that we at home in the USA didn’t know what was happening with you in real time in Irian back then. As your sister, I would certainly have begun developing grey hair much sooner. Come to think about it, perhaps that’s why you have so much more grey hair now than I do!

    I’m sure the missionaries and the nationals really appreciated your deliveries and other services – but I’m really grateful that you survived your close encounters with death.


    Joan Miller

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