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Remote Runways: Missionary Aviation from a Pilot’s Perspective

By Yayeri van Baarsen

Where they fly, there is often no go-around, extremely sloped landing strips consist of nothing more than dirt road, and runways might double as the towns main street. Meet the hardcore heroes of jungle flying: bush pilots.

Joe Hopkins with the Shell Plaza Plane and oil derrick in the background. (Courtesy Joe Hopkins)Papua New Guinea, Honduras, and the Philippines are just three of the more than 40 countries Joe Hopkins, founder of Mission Safety International, has flown in. With decades of experience, he has also trained many other pilots in jungle and bush flying, where morning dew can make the already short landing strips as slippery as ice, and the sudden drop off in the ravine might be only a couple of hundred feet away.

“I’ve landed in humid areas in Honduras where when putting on the brakes, it felt like I was speeding up. Pumping the brakes and having crosshatched tires helps, but the most consequential instrument is a pilot’s state of mind and good judgment,” Joe said. Pre-planning and keeping contact with the missionary in the village about the state of the runway are also of vital importance. “If there’s just one inch of standing water, it’ll be all over your windshields, obscuring your vision, but you can probably still land relatively safely–I’ve done so. However, if the water is two to three inches deep, which looks the same from the air, there will be too much drag on the wheels, causing a tailwheel to easily tip over,” he explained. Being a missionary pilot is not for the fainthearted. 

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