Whether they're delivering New Testaments or transporting missionaries, airplanes have been crucial to the work of spreading the gospel.
It all started when Orville and Wilbur Wright, the sons of a Christian minister, first took flight in 1904. That day in Kitty Hawk, N.C., has changed the world like few others.
Powered flight has shrunk the globe, and even the universe -- just a little bit. But it's hidden accomplishment is the way it's been used to expand the kingdom of God.
"It made mission work possible, where it was impossible before," said Butch Barman
The airplane has opened up new mission fields by allowing contact with groups that had been cut off from the outside world. It spares missionaries the hardships of weeks of overland travel over harsh terrain, and it gives them crucial support by delivering equipment and medicines, and providing emergency transportation.
Making Missions Easier
That support has allowed missions workers to arrive on the field healthy and ready to tackle their long-term task.
"We know that the work of the church and of missions would be slowed down by years and maybe even decades in some parts of the world if it wasn't for the use of the airplane," said Dennis Fulton.
Cameron Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, was a pioneer of mission aviation.
Uncle Cam, as he is known in Wycliffe, saw firsthand the essential need for this tool in 1946, when two of his workers, Titus and Florence Nickel, had to walk from their base in the foothills of the Andes Mountains to the nearest city.
When they reached their destination three weeks later, they were a pitiful sight.
"When Uncle Cam saw them, their clothes were tattered and torn and dirty and their bodies were almost emaciated," Barman recalled. "He said, 'this shall never happen again. We've got to have airplanes for our people so that we don't waste their lives.'"
JAARS Delivers the Word
Townsend formed Jungle Aviation and Radio Services, today known simply as JAARS, to transport and serve his Bible translators.
Based in Waxhaw, N.C., it is one of the largest mission aviation services in the world.
Wycliffe USA President Bob Creson says the airplanes have one of the most honored roles in the organization-- delivering Bibles to people who never had them before.
"The thrill that you get really is when those airplanes land and they're loaded with New Testaments for a new testament dedication and people gather around these aircrafts and certainly these aircrafts have played a role in transporting those New Testaments," he said. "But it's the joy that people are feeling at having God's word arrive in their own language -- it's really a blessing to see that."
At about the same time Townsend's idea was taking wing, a group of Christian military airmen were having similar ideas.
In the waning days of World War II, what is now known as Mission Aviation Fellowship was formed.
More than Flying a Plane
It's early pilots were pioneers of the aviation field-- people like Betty Greene, MAF's first pilot. She became the first woman to fly over the Andes Mountains.
And then there's Nate Saint. He's best known for his work and martyrdom among the Auca Indians in Ecuador. But Saint was also a master at adapting aviation technology to suit mission work.
"He designed a way to carry corrugated roofing under the belly of the airplane," Fulton explained. "He designed a fuel system, an emergency fuel system, so that if the primary fuel system, something would happen to it, you could get fuel into the system and keep the airplane in the air."
And he devised a method for contacting people on the ground where there were no airstrips.
"He designed a system that he would fly in a tight circle, and as he would be flying in the circle he would let a rope with a bucket on the end of that rope and as he would continue to let the rope out, that rope would go to the middle and he could actually set the bucket on the ground," Fulton continued. "Sometimes he had a telephone in there that the missionary on the bottom could pick up the telephone and talk to Nate in the airplane."
Reaching Those in Need
Saint's spirit of exploration and discovery is alive in today's missionary pilots who still skim the treetops looking for unreached groups who need to hear the gospel.
"We're looking for any sign of life, whether it be a little village hut or some gardens," one pilot said. "Sometimes the people live in little caves or under a tree you can't see from here. But you may see a sign of gardening in the area."
And like Saint, they're not only pilots, but preachers as well.
"In some cases the pilot becomes the messenger as well. going in and preaching in churches. taking the jesus film, one of the tools that modern technology allows us to land and hang a sheet from the wing of an airplane and set up a little generator and project the jesus film on this sheet. people come around and gather adn they're able to see as well as to hear the story of jesus, sometimes for the very first time."
And it's that evangelistic spirit, more than anything else - love of adventure or the thrill of flight - that motivates the men and women of mission aviation.
"Most of us are here because somewhere down inside us there's a propeller turning, but it's the resourcefulness of the people that have the desire to share the gospel," Fulton said. "The airplane, it's a tool. But it's really the call of God on a person's life in order to share the story of jesus. that's where it's at."