Deep in the heart of the Carolinas, JAARS is transforming Waxhaw, N.C., just south of Charlotte into a remote jungle location. That’s where the group trains pilots for service in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Cameroon, and other areas where Wycliffe missionaries are working to learn new languages to translate the Bible.
One of the training aircraft is the Helio Courier, a workhorse that can haul five passengers, fly low and slow or high and fast, and takeoff and land in 600-foot grass strips with obstacles on both ends. The aircraft also can be modified with a cargo pod to haul even more, including medical supplies and Bibles. I got a chance to see the Helio Courier in action May 1 during JAARS Day, an open house and fly-in event the organization hosts quarterly.
While no one near Waxhaw could tell you where the airport was located (I drove), everyone could tell you were JAARS was (and it just so happens that it’s based at the privately owned, public-use JAARS-Townsend Airport). The airport has a single paved runway (4/22) that is 3,309 feet long by 40 feet wide. But it has three grass strips, including one that parallels the paved runway, one that is diagonal, and one that is 600 feet with trees on both ends to simulate some of the conditions that pilots will be flying into on their assignments. The organization is looking for other landing sites on the sides of hills or mountains that could better prepare the pilots for the terrain where they’ll be flying.
During the open house, everyone from toddlers to adults perused the hangars filled not only with aircraft but also with the latest technology that missionaries are using on the field, including equipment that provides enough bandwidth to allow Internet access and streaming voice capabilities (not enough for video though). Children even got to try their hand at riveting.
Pilots performed two Helio Courier demonstrations. A crowd learned about the basics of how an airplane flies, along with some of the special features of the Helio Courier, including a large rudder and slats the drop down on the leading edge of the wing to increase aircraft control when it is operating at slow speeds. The slats are so sensitive that when flying a figure eight, the slat on the slower wing will drop down while the one on the faster wingremains up.
With a light headwind, the aircraft could takeoff in five of its lengths (it’s about 31 feet long); as the wind picked up later in the day, it took off in only three—a pilot on the ground helped the crowd count the lengths. Landings varied between five and six lengths of the airplane.
After watching the demonstration, I couldn’t wait to purchase a ticket for my chance to ride in the aircraft. For just $22, I got two rides—one in a four-wheel-drive vehicle on paths created to teach missionaries how to drive over rough terrain, and the other in the Helio Courier.
Driving over stairs and tree roots and in ruts that made the vehicle almost stand on its side was exciting, but the true fun came when I switched to the aircraft. I got stuck in the back of the Helio Courier because I was the lightest of the four in my group. But that was OK because a teenager got to fly in the copilot seat (I kept telling myself it was probably his first flight so he should get to experience it from that seat).
From the back, I watched the main landing gear of the tailwheel aircraft actually move inward as the Helio Courier accelerated and the wings began to generate lift. This boosts the pilot a little higher off the ground before rotation. Another unique characteristic of this aircraft is the way the checklist is integrated. A row of tabs on the top of a traditional instrument panel allows the pilot to systematically flip them up or down to signify completion of a particular part of the checklist. Flaps (40 degrees) and trim were controlled by hand cranks overhead between the pilot and copilot seats. Whereas pilots in many aircraft today have mechanical leavers or electric switches to select the desired flap setting, the pilots of these aircraft have to know how many turns of the crank it takes for a specific flap setting. After landing, the pilot explained to me that the Helio Courier is designed to land and take off with flaps, and that no-flap takeoffs and landings are a part of their emergency training.
Riding in the back also gave me a unique perspective on the operations these pilots perform. I was able to imagine that I was one of their passengers flying into a remote area for the first time, getting ready to set up a new life among a new people group to try to learn their language. I thought of all the questions and emotions that I might have on my mind. And then, I thought about my pilot. He was calm, kind, and reassuring (and this was just for a flight around North Carolina). How wonderful it would be to have such a well trained, confident, personable pilot flying me to my new location. I would be completely unaware of the difficulty level with which the pilot would be grappling with to land on such a short strip or on the side of a hill.
After reflecting on just how much these pilots do for missionaries in remote locations–from transportation, to emergency evacuation, to supply restocking–I think these and other missionary and bush pilots must be some of the best in the world, not just because of their skill level, but also because of their pride and professionalism in creating a safe, comforting environment in the aircraft under such difficult circumstances.