Jack Hemmings - one of MAF’s founding fathers – is performing aerobatics today at White Waltham Airfield in Maidenhead to celebrate his centenary. As Jack takes to the skies in a Slingsby T67 Firefly aircraft, we look back on his early days with MAF…
Born in Bentham in Yorkshire one hundred years ago, Jack gained a bursary at Christ’s Hospital, West Sussex, where he boarded full-time from the age of 12.
Jack trained in aerobatics in 1992 - a sport which showcases the very best of aerial acrobatics for spectators to enjoy. Today, he is accompanied by flight instructor, Nigel Rhind.
At the height of World War II, Jack joined the Royal Air Force in 1941. In 1946 he became squadron leader of 353 Squadron, flying Lockheed Hudson and C-47 Dakota aircraft.
Jack was awarded the Air Force Cross for ‘exemplary gallantry while flying’, and later received the Master Air Pilot Award in 2017 from the Guild of Air Pilots.
Whilst in India in 1945, he came across a copy of ‘Mildmay Outlook’ magazine, which featured an article about launching a Christian air service. It was written by Murray Kendon - a New Zealand pilot and one of the founders of MAF.
As a Christian this resonated with Jack, so on his return to London in 1946, he made steps to become a member of the early ‘Mildmay Movement’, which would become Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF).
Jack helped launch the first mission air service from the Mildmay ‘Operations Room’ in Islington, London, and was appointed chief pilot of the first ever MAF survey flight to Africa.
It would be the aptly named ‘Mildmay Pathfinder’ - MAF’s first Miles Gemini aircraft - which would carry Jack and MAF’s co-founder, Stuart King, to the African continent.
First, a UK tour
Following an aircraft dedication service at Broxbourne Airport in Hertfordshire in August 1947, the Mildmay Pathfinder toured the UK for six weeks, raising much needed awareness about MAF.
On tour, the founding members - Jack Hemmings, Stuart King, Murray Kendon and Tom Banham - visited over 30 locations including Newcastle, Portsmouth, Bristol, Cheltenham, Nottingham, Lincoln, Blackburn, Liverpool, Coventry, Sheffield, Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, Manchester, Cumbria, Belfast, Londonderry, Dublin, Northampton and Cambridge.
20,000 people got to hear about the ministry of MAF ahead of their African survey. The UK tour attracted the first of many life-long supporters.
First MAF survey to Africa
Jack and Stuart took off in the Mildmay Pathfinder from Croydon Airport, Surrey, on 13 January 1948.
They plotted their route across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Kenya, using the River Nile as their guide.
The pair, who became the first British airmen to survey the needs of isolated areas across Central Africa, formerly launched MAF - a global mission, which now spans over 25 countries. Now in its 76th year, MAF is recognised as the world’s largest humanitarian airline.
Building airstrips in the wilderness
Whilst discovering unimaginable needs amid hazardous terrain, Jack and Stuart were able to make contact with over 500 remote missionaries. Together they concluded that the only way to provide lifesaving help in hard-to-reach places was to build airstrips in the wilderness.
In the absence of roads, small planes enabled emergency cargo, missionaries and medical equipment to be delivered safely and quickly, saving many days of treacherous overland travel.
It was an adventure of a lifetime, which Jack embraced with fearless determination – a trait which has never left him.
On one occasion, as Jack piloted the Miles Gemini accompanied by Stuart, they climbed slowly through the valleys of Burundi’s foothills, but struggled to reach an altitude of 8,500 feet to clear the mountains ahead.
As they approached the highest peak, a strong headwind dragged them down where they fatefully met a banana tree on their descent. Miraculously, both men survived but the Gemini was in ruins.
As a result, Jack earned the nickname ‘Crasher Jack’, which is still affectionately used by family and friends today.
100 fearless years
Jack moved on from MAF to begin a successful career in accountancy but he remained closely affiliated with MAF, returning to flying in 1982.
Even at the age of 100, Jack continues to perform in the skies for pleasure. His wife, Kate Hemmings – who he lives with in Heathfield, East Sussex - describes her husband’s fearless nature:
‘We believe that the motto “fear not” from his early 353 Squadron, along with firm Christian faith have helped him all the way through. Jack is an awesome, amazing man, and the whole Hemmings family want to wish him a very happy 100th birthday.’
Jack continues to be a dedicated supporter of MAF today.