Usually, the final exam is completed before graduation, but in my case, the biggest test of my knowledge and skill was on the night of September 17, 2020.
The training I completed for my Aircraft Maintenance Licenses went by so quickly. Since my last newsletter, I finished the Airframe maintenance course, complete with sheetmetal repairs, electrical wiring and diagrams, changing tires, bending metal tubes, sending a drill bit through my finger, (Ouch!) painting, and so much more. My classmates and I have many memories together as we collaborated and worked on school assignments together.
Next was the engine mechanics course, which involved starting countless engines, setting the timing on the ignition systems, adjusting carburetors, changing oil, mounting propellers, checking gauges, inspecting and cleaning parts.
The biggest project I was a part of was to completely disassemble a six cylinder engine, clean it, reassemble it, and then start it up after we finished working on it. This project took several weeks and it was very satisfying to see it come alive!
Being an aircraft mechanic isn't hard work, but there are some tougher aspects to the job. I can remember lying in the very narrow tail, pulling cables through the fuselage that sometimes required my arms to bend in ways God never intended them to. I also spent many hours curled up under instrument panels trying to reach elusive components. Many airplanes have equipment packed in so tightly, one has to remove a few items in order to possibly get to the intended components.
After the excitement of maintenance training drew to a close, I successfully passed the school exams and the mechanic certification testing. Only a few days later, I started flight training, also at the School of Missionary Aviation Technology. Before starting flight lessons, I had flown only a handful of times under the supervision of other pilots, but I didn't know a lot about piloting airplanes.
My first lesson was absolutely thrilling! For me, the liftoff was just what I needed to be hooked. I'm thankful for the Lord leading me into mission aviation, as it is possibly the most fulfilling and enjoyable profession for me, and it can be used to help people.
I passed my private pilot test just before Christmas 2019, and then I was flying numerous cross country flights and was introduced to two additional types of airplanes that require additional training to fly. The first was to fly complex or technically advanced airplanes, which was done in a Cessna 172 RG. This airplane has retractable landing gear with the advantage of reducing parasitic drag that happens when the wheels are hanging in the wind.
The second was to fly the Cessna 206. This was unique because it has 300 horse power. The 206 is a six seater in which the back seats can be removed and cargo drums can be loaded. It is frequently used in overseas missions because of its versatility.
A third unique airplane to fly is the tailwheel or conventional gear style airplanes. Instead of a nose wheel, these airplanes utilize two main wheels in front and a small tailwheel at the rear of the airplane. Some of the advantages over a conventional gear system is that the tailwheel weighs less than a big nose wheel and also provides less drag. On the ground, the propeller is further away from the rocks and dirt which can be a concern for mission airstrips.
During flight training, my favorite week was in June 2020. The instructors and my entire class flew from Michigan to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Here, we were introduced to mountain flying like we had never experienced before. We were taught the best way to determine the wind direction, how to fly inside narrow mountain valleys, and how to safely turn around without hitting the sides of the valleys when the weather closed in ahead. Several flights, my instructor simulated weather and would give me a scenario. Other times, we encountered real storms and low visibility that took a miracle to navigate out of.
My instructor and I, accompanied by two classmates, were flying through the Smokey Mountain valleys towards the lowlands in a Cessna 206. All day, we had been working around the gradually lowering cloud bases as we were flying to Elizabethton, Tennessee (0A9) for the night. We had enough fuel to get back but there wasn't much margin, and we calculated our reserves and decided to stop at a narrow airstrip called Avery Co, (7A8) to measure what we had.
As we prepared to fly through the last valley towards the lowlands, we received some vague reports from our teammates, who were in another airplane, that rain was approaching our valley and could close us in if we didn't hurry. Instead of taking on fuel at Avery, where it was almost twice as expensive, we checked the levels and confirmed that we could make it back with enough margin. We offered a prayer before going and set off. The weather was better than we thought it would be, but was deteriorating quickly. About 15 minutes into the flight, we rounded a sharp bend in the valley, and it became incredibly hard to see ahead and it started to rain hard.
We were trapped in front by the wall of rain and we were surrounded on either side by mountains that towered high into the clouds. There was no time for panic. In training, I had practiced a maneuver to get turned around quickly and in a tight space, but at that moment, our lives depended on it. I stayed to the right side of the valley and then rolled into a steep 45 degree bank to the left and got the airplane turned around successfully. We thanked God for his protection and then asked him to help us make it on the ground safely.
But even though we were headed back where we came from, we realized we weren't finished yet. The clouds had lowered even more, and we weren't legal to fly in instrument conditions. We finally saw the final mountain valley, but the cloud bases were so low, it wasn't safe to proceed. I can remember feeling completely helpless. For a second time, we were trapped. With the help of GPS and terrain maps, we circled around in the valley and sought the best way out of this problem.
By this time, we recognized we were nearly running into our reserves and my instructor started considering making a forced landing in a field somewhere to give us the best chance at survival.
Again we prayed and then decided to try navigating towards the airport again which was only a couple miles up the valley. As we tried again, we recognized that the clouds had lifted some, and we cautiously made a run for it. As we approached, we then saw the runway! That was the most thankful I had ever been before. When on the ground, we sat in the airplane in shock and amazement at what had happened, and how the Lord had shown us a miracle in protecting us that afternoon.
Not long after this experience, we returned to Michigan and transitioned into instrument flight training. This was my favorite course, as it was put up to be a large challenge in school, and also, I now had a grasp of its usefulness.
Within a few weeks my classmates and I finished the instrument and commercial courses and then the check-rides were scheduled. I passed both successfully, and then my focus was where the Lord wanted me next. I had been talking with the leaders of several mission aviation organizations, but as I explored serving with a few, the doors closed firmly to most of them for various reasons. There was one that was different. AngelOne, a brand new organization was exploring how to be most useful in Gods work, and asked me to join some of the meetings while I sought God's guidance and direction. AngelOne was established to help raise support in the United States and Canada for a mission aviation program in Nicaragua and eventually elsewhere.
I had been to a few meetings before graduation, and was interested, but I hadn't seen from the Lord that this opportunity was for me.
September 17, 2020 arrived, the day of my graduation from flight school. It was an amazing time to realize that a year before, I didn't know how to even taxi the airplane in the center of the taxiway, let alone fly it. It was really an amazing and almost emotional time remembering the progress we all had made and some of the highlights of what I had been taught. I was also amazed seeing how the Lord was preparing me for something amazing, which I didn't understand completely yet.
After Graduation, I prepared to fly the hour flight home to where my family lived. I checked the fuel in the tanks and did my usual walk-around pre-flight inspection. Before long, a friend of mine and a fellow attendee, climbed in with me and we prepared to fly. I started the engine, taxied into position and did the usual before-takeoff checklist.
As we took off, we entered the darkness with scattered dots of lights covering the blackened earth. It looked like a Christmas landscape with all the glowing lights. As we climbed and turned on course, I again felt so much thankfulness and peace. I still didn't know where the Lord wanted me to serve, but that was okay with me, because in His time, I saw his leading very clearly. That night, I felt God was close and I was at peace. Wherever the Lord was leading me, I was ready to follow.
About a half hour into the flight, I smelled a quick burning smell. I checked my instruments and the first glance didn't show anything was wrong. The smell vanished, and the Air Traffic Controller instructed me to contact the next controlling facility. I looked over everything more carefully to see if there was a problem lurking. I began to notice the digital clock flashing. The display revealed a flashing warning of 11 volts. As I watched, it was counting down and it kept blinking. I came to realize that I had lost the power supply coming from the generator. The flashing message got below 8 volts, and I started having a few components power down with such low voltage. I immediately contacted the controller and told him I was having a generator problem, and needed to turn off as many electronic devices as I could. Turning everything off was important as I would need the remaining power to turn the runway lights on. I still had a deep sense that the Lord was close as I remembered back to how the Lord had opened the way for me in the valleys in Tennessee, when I felt trapped deep in the valley with a rain storm approaching. School had also prepared me for what to do in this type of emergency.
As I thought about my options, I remembered my destination airport was not very well lit, even if I could turn the lights on. I had a handheld radio and I pulled it out of the back of my seat, and to my dismay it was not charged enough to turn on. The next closest airport has much better lighting and we made the decision to divert there in hopes that we could find a way to control the lights. As I turned towards the runway, they were lit at full intensity. Thank you, Lord!
I flipped on the power switch briefly to troubleshoot one last time, and I noticed both fuel gauges were reading just above empty. The Cessna gauges are notoriously inaccurate and were only trustworthy on empty. I had checked the fuel before departure, and had more than double the quantity I needed, so I became confused with the difference. (I later learned that we had plenty of fuel and that the gauges were reading low due to the low voltage).
I focused on flying the plane. I was now on a 5 mile final with the runway lights miraculously on, and with an engine still running. I sent up a prayer of gratitude.
On short final, I again turned on the power, and the remaining voltage wasn't even enough for the landing lights to be bright enough to see anything. The landing was smooth and uneventful and as soon as we got to the ramp and shut the engine off, the timer on the runway lights expired, and the airport was surrounded in darkness.
I knew for sure that God was very near, and He turned on the lights just for us. Instead of being fearful as everything imaginable went wrong, I had peace. Instead of worry, I felt secure with the knowledge that God was near. I felt reverence and unworthiness as I was standing in the presence of God. I will never forget that night of September 17, 2020.
The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, And delivers them. Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good;
Blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him.