Celebratory speeches at Gove Airport (credit: MAF Arnhem Land)
50 years ago, MAF inherited Arnhem Land’s first ever Christian aviation operation founded by pilot Rev Harold Shepherdson in the 1930s. ‘Sheppy’ began reaching the isolated Yolngu tribe in Australia’s Northern Territory with his single seater Health Parasol aircraft – self-built from a kit. Today, MAF Arnhem Land boasts 2 Cessna 208 Caravans and 6 GA8 Airvans, flying to over 50 destinations, serving hundreds of people every week
The 50th birthday bash at Gove Airport – hosted by MAF Arnhem Land Pilot and Country Director Matt Henderson – featured a range of guest speakers and an array of activities including flight simulator sessions, aircraft viewings, face painting and a barbecue.
A child gets her face painted during the celebrations (credit: MAF Arnhem Land)
Flight simulator fun (credit: Hannah-Rose Simmonds)
Matt paid tribute to past pioneers who paved the way to where MAF Arnhem Land is today. He also honoured partners and staff who work tirelessly to serve the Yolngu – an indigenous Aboriginal tribe of around 16,000 people who inhabit north-east Arnhem Land.
MAF Arnhem Land’s Country Director Matt Henderson hosts the event (credit: Sean Atkins)
Addressing partners, Matt emphasised their symbiotic relationship with MAF:
‘It’s a privilege for MAF to facilitate what you do for other people. We have a vision to see isolated people transformed by the love of Christ. Ultimately, it’s about transformation which you all do so well. Whether it’s physical or spiritual transformation, I want you to know that your work is MAF’s work, and your success is MAF’s success.
MAF Arnhem Land Pilot and Country Director Matt Henderson
Matt also praised MAF staff:
‘I want our staff to know that your work is our partners’ work. For those of you who turn the spanners or organise files or stores, these things have to happen for those students to get to school or for those women to be rescued from domestic violence. MAF is a part of that.’
Matt thanks engineers who work tirelessly behind the scenes (credit: Thomas Baertschi)
Origins of MAF Arnhem Land
Despite being part of Australia – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – Arnhem Land is a vast, remote wilderness the size of England and Wales, with limited infrastructure and development, and high rates of poverty, unemployment and crime.
Arnhem Land is the north-eastern tip of the Northern Territory (credit: Divyan Ahimaz)
It was MAF’s predecessor, Australian Methodist missionary Rev Harold Shepherdson, who decided to bring hope to communities plagued with social problems, poor health and limited access to opportunities.
Based on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land, ‘Sheppy’ had been serving the Yolngu homelands since 1928.
In a bid to spread the love of Christ, it became clear that he needed planes and airstrips to reach the scattered Yolngu people. He built both.
MAF Arnhem Land flies to 50+ airstrips including Birany Birany (credit: Annelie Edsmyr)
Driving for many hours on non-existent ‘roads’ or walking for weeks to reach remote homeland communities simply wasn’t practical!
Flying is the easiest way to navigate Arnhem Land’s wilderness (credit: MAF Arnhem Land)
Sheppy ordered his first plane kit from America and built it himself. The Health Parasol aircraft, followed by other handmade models, were eventually replaced with factory built Cessna 208 Caravans and GA8 Airvans, which have served the Yolngu for many years.
Cessna 208 Caravans & GA8 Airvans replace Sheppy’s aircraft (credit: Annelie Edsmyr)
MAF inherits and expands Sheppy’s operation
Meanwhile, during their quest to find a base for MAF Asia Pacific in the early 1950s, MAF pilot Edwin ‘Harry’ Hartwig and engineer Alex Freind meet Sheppy. 22 years later, after 45 years of service, Sheppy retires and hands over his entire operation to MAF in November 1973.
MAF Australia’s Harry Hartwig
In 1975, a new base is established at Gove Airport. Several Yolngu airlines develop, serving different homelands, with each aircraft operating under a different Air Operating Certificate (AOC).
MAF Arnhem Land’s original base was on Elcho Island (credit: Picasa)
Gove Airport is MAF Arnhem Land’s base today (credit: Annelie Edsmyr)
The 1980s sees the launch of the RPT Operation (Regular Public Transport) connecting more isolated people to healthcare, fresh produce and education more frequently.
As MAF Arnhem Land grows, more remote people access fresh produce (credit: Picasa)
In a bid to simplify services, MAF and the Yolngu establish the ‘Arnhem Land Community Airlines’ in 1995, bringing together five operations under one AOC.
By 2017 – as a regular part of its service – MAF offers the Yolngu the option to book individual seats instead of having to charter an entire aircraft.
MAF regularly flies students & teachers to school in Gawa (credit: Gawa Christian School)
Today, MAF is the only air operator with permanent access to the region, fostering economic development and better access to healthcare and education.
MAF transports food to Howard Island residents during Covid (credit: Philipp Techand)
Half of the aircraft are owned by the Yolngu community.
The reluctant aircraft engineer
Guest of honour at the celebratory event was Yingiya (Mark) Guyula – the world’s first ever Yolngu pilot/engineer turned politician.
Yingiya Guyula is guest of honour at the celebrations (credit: MAF Arnhem Land)
Following an aviation career with MAF, Yingiya is now an independent member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly for the seat of Mulka in north-east Arnhem Land.
Son of a crocodile hunter, Yingiya had dreams of becoming a car mechanic, but there were no jobs at the local garage.
It was during a flight in a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane – built and piloted by Sheppy – that Yingiya’s father got into a conversation about his son’s future.
Yingiya becomes the world’s first Yolngu aircraft engineer (credit: Beth Harris)
Sheppy suggested approaching MAF who were always looking for engineers. At first, Yingiya was reluctant:
‘I said, “No, that’s too much for me. I don’t want to work on things that fly” but papa said, “It’s very similar but the engines are cleaner than cars.” I thought about it and said, “Ok, I’ll give it a go.” I went home excited.’
Yingiya always had a passion for fixing things (credit: Yingiya Guyula)
Yingiya remembers being inspired by MAF’s history:
‘I heard the story of how MAF started after World War 2 by pilots who fought for their country. They flew to kill people, but they changed it around and said, “Let’s fly for life instead.” That’s what MAF still does today.’
The world’s first ever Yolngu pilot
Yingiya refuels one of MAF Arnhem Land’s planes (credit: Yingiya Guyula)
Yingiya’s family and Yolngu elders were so proud of his progress as an engineer, but they wanted him to go further he says:
‘They were really happy to see me – a Yolngu learning but they walked up to my boss and asked him, “Are you going to teach him how to fly?” They were keen but I said, “No, this is enough. I’m going to work on aeroplanes but not fly them. They pushed and pushed. They really wanted to see me fly, so I said, “Ok I’ll try.”’
Yingiya Guyula – Former MAF Arnhem Land engineer / trained private pilot & Member of the NT Legislative Assembly
It was the Charlesworths who helped support Yingiya through flight school. Today, their son Stephen Charlesworth is MAF’s Director of Strategic Development for Asia Pacific.
Yingiya recalls his first ever solo flight:
‘Everybody was waiting. I took off, flew around, touched down and landed effectively. Everybody ran and hugged me and jumped up and down. I brought the plane down in one piece. They asked me how I felt. I said, “I don’t have the instructor looking over my shoulder any more telling me what to do. I did it my way!”‘
The next 50 years
In his closing remarks, Yingiya hopes that future generations of Yolngu will also be inspired by MAF to develop their communities through aviation:
‘When I finally passed all my flying exams, I was proud of myself. My people were really proud too and that’s what I want for others. Some Yolngu look at me as a role model for young people to start flying. I would like to see a flying school for indigenous people.
‘MAF were the people that made me feel strong. We need more support for MAF so they can continue with God’s work.’
MAF Arnhem Land hopes to expand its medevac service (credit: Rhys Morrell)
As the event wraps up, MAF Arnhem Land Country Director Matt Henderson thanks God and everyone for their past achievements whilst acknowledging that there is still more work to be done:
‘There is still work to do. We will use whatever we can, to do whatever we can, wherever we can. As we look to the future, we will keep trying to do it better. We’ll still be here – whether that’s increasing homeland access, shuttle runs or medical plane provision. One day we’ll have a Yolngu female pilot!
‘Thank you all for what you do, what you’ve done and for what we’ll do together in future. Thank you God for what you started with Sheppy and for what you have continued. Thank you for the resources and people who you have enabled to do what they do. May you continue that provision well into the future for the people of Arnhem land. Amen!’
In 2022, MAF Arnhem Land transported more than 9,000 people and 31,000kg of cargo across the Northern Territory.
MAF Arnhem Land is currently working with the Australian government to develop a full-time on call air ambulance service to save even more lives.
Long may God provide for the people of Arnhem Land! (credit: Lukas Schmid)
Listen out for the next episode of the Flying for Life Podcast – ‘Arnhem Land at 50’, featuring Matt Henderson and Yingiya Guyula. Coming soon!
MAF respects Arnhem Land’s indigenous people. We’ve tried to ensure that names and images of deceased indigenous people don’t appear on our platforms. However, circumstances change, so please contact us if any featured material needs to be removed.