Alyssa Miller

Jungle flying with JAARS

May 3, 2010 by Alyssa Miller, AOPA Online Managing Editor

Helio Courier
JAARS Helio Courier on display before demo flights.

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.

Grass strip
Pilots practice on this 600-foot-long grass runway with trees on both ends.

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).

Final approach
Tabs on top of the instrument panel serve as the pilot’s checklist.

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.

14 Responses to “Jungle flying with JAARS”

  1. Dick Jacobs Says:

    Great article. I sent copies to two of my acquaintances who are involved in flying, one of which trained in your program. Keep up the excellent work.

  2. Pete Lawry Says:

    The integrated checklist is really an addition by JAARS and not part of the original design.

  3. Mike Mower Says:

    I flew the Helio demos and then manned the loading gate where passengers from the 4WD ride transitioned to the Helio ride. I remember loading Alyssa in the rear seat for CG concerns and then learned that she is a pilot. We usually like to put the pilots up front in the right seat, but she was the lightest passenger for that flight so she got the Helio experience from the back. I didn’t know she was going to write about her JAARS Day Missionary Adventure Ride. Great article.

  4. Mike Mower Says:

    Remaining JAARS Days for 2010 will be Aug 7 and Oct 2. Come and see us.

  5. Jerry Waddell Says:

    JAARS added the integrated checklist to the Helio as a very important aid to its very busy and multitask pilots. It is very helpfull and is standard on the certified Model 44 Angel Aircraft bush plane I fly.

  6. Arthur Lightbody Says:


    Alyssa Miller understands. She put herself in my wife’s seat flying into the village with two small boys – with us not knowing what the next weeks would bring. (I was in the friont seat of course!) We had the “reassuring, confident pilot”. “Mike” or “George” or “Wendell” or “Dave” — they were all the same. And one came back for us and took us back to the Bible translation center when my wife and I both had malaria and we couldn’ take care of those two little ones well.

    Arthur Lightbody, JAARS Meida Relations Officer

  7. John McGrew Says:

    Got a ride in the front seat of the Helio a few years ago while helping out at an event in Arizona. Was also impressed by the checklist; simple and effective. If the wind is blowing enough, the landing is more like descending in an elevator than landing an airplane.

  8. David Martin Says:

    Great article on some wonderful people doing a tough job. They even had a simulator set up at Sun-n-Fun to practice flying into one wild runway in New Guinea. I didn’t get to “fly” the simulator since the teenagers were having so much fun with it!

  9. Mark Grady Says:

    Thank you Alyssa for a great piece. The folks at JAARS are an incredible group of dedicated folks who show the amazing power of General Aviation in helping people.

  10. Thomas Ritchie Says:

    One of their pilots give me my BFR, a fellow named Daley. Yes, they are as good as it gets. For those men and women, they could fly the hanger door if needed.

  11. David W Webster Says:

    My wife and I had the privilege of visiting JAARS in 1995. I have been a supporter of Wycliffe Bible Translators and JAARS for many years. I am an inactive private pilot. We were able to go for a short ride in a Helio Courier and I was able to fly it briefly. We were very impressed by the JAARS facilities including the two museums.

  12. John Pepper Says:

    I was driving the 4×4 part of the ride, great article. I am glad you had a good time while visiting us at the Jaars Center. I am an aviation nut, and never get tired of watching the Helio demonstration. It is interesting that the Helio Courier has been used for so long in mission aviation. Helio Courier can be translated from greek as “Messenger of Light”, a very appropriate name for an aircraft that often delivers the new Bibles, as they are completed, to remote peoples around the world.

  13. Bill Lambright Says:

    Good article Alyssa!

    I am a retired JAARS missionary (avionics/electronics tech) Your article was forwarded to me by one of the best Helio pilots ever to buckle himself into a Helio Coouier – Bob Griffin! Bob also edited JAARS’ magazine -“Beyond” for many years. Next time you visit JAARS give Bob a call; he lives near the JAARS Center and can fill your pilot’s ears with Helio stories from Ecuador and the Philippines. He also flew Helio demos of “Old #1″ at Oshkosh for many years.

    Glad you enjoyed JAARS Day!

    PS I helped begin the JAARS Day program back in the early 80’s and video taped the visit of the developer of the Helio Courier when he visited JAARS in the mid 80’s. He gave an interesting lecture on how he developed the aircraft.


    I am reading this nice article by Alyssa one year after she visited JAARS n JAARS Day and a week after the May 7, 2011, JAARS day where I flew a hovercraft all day on the facilities small pond not far from the runway. I am a former aircraft owner, retired commercial hot air balloon pilot and JAARS/Wycliffe Bible Translators supporter for 25 years. Thank you for this article, Alyssa in the event you might read this in the future. You protrayed JAARS and your experience there very well. I thank you for this. I was flown into a small uphill airstrip on a mountain top in northern Luzon, The Philippines in a Helio Courier 10 years ago so I got to experience the real thing. Yes, their pilots are trained well and their equipment is excellently maintained. I am sure any ot their pilots will tell you that God is their pilot and they are just the co-pilot.

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