Class of 2021 (front to back) Shan Wadham, Cameron Bruce, Jacob Walton, Ethan McMaster and Joe Farren

Since 2015, MAF’s Training Centre in Mareeba, Queensland, Australia has been training up would-be mission pilots and upskilling existing ones to be the best that they can be to serve others. But what unique skills must a MAF mission pilot possess to work in the world’s most isolated places? We caught up with the class of 2021 to find out…

The reason why the MAF Flight Training Centre at Mareeba exists is not only to train pilots professionally on how to be safe and competent while flying, but also how to follow God’s leading using their skills to serve Him.

Students Ethan McMaster, Joe Farren, Jacob Walton, Shan Wadham and Cameron Bruce are on that very journey this year.

Understanding God’s mission

The centre desires to give students an introduction to how aircraft can be used to share God’s love with people in remote places. Andrew Little, Flight Instructor and Head of Training, explains:

‘Taking students to visit remote churches is really important - it connects technical flying training with real Gospel opportunities.

It’s an eye-opener for them to see first-hand isolation faced by remote believers. We love to show them mutual encouragement that comes from overcoming distance to meeting together in Christ.’

Andrew Little, Flight Instructor & Head of Training - MAF Mareeba’s Flight Training Centre

As part of their training, the students flew a Cessna 172, VH-WMC, to the coastal town of Cooktown in Queensland – an eighty-minute flight from Mareeba.

This not only increases their flying experience but also gives them the opportunity to encourage and participate in a small, remote church. Jacob Walton really enjoyed the trip:

‘It was a great experience, and we plan on going back there in a few weeks to do some voluntary work. The church wasn't much bigger than the average family living room and only had around eight people there on the day. They were such lovely people, and we had a great time getting to know them.’

Ethan McMaster recalls the contribution he made during the church service he attended in Cooktown:

‘I shared how much I was enjoying MAF fellowship in Mareeba and how God has been working in my heart and inspiring me through the instructors and engineers. It was an amazing blessing to be part of their small church community – I look forward to flying back there.

‘I have always been in love with flying and being in Mareeba with MAF has only confirmed that. It’s still early days but I can’t wait to see what the future holds and what God’s plan is. I would love to serve with MAF one day!’

Flight Instructor, Bridget Ingham (far left) in Cooktown with students Jacob, Joe and Nathan (L to R) for a training exercise

Practise makes perfect

In practical terms, there are many skills to master as a commercial pilot including navigation, emergency procedures and controlling the aircraft in a range of weather conditions. At MAF’s Flight Training Centre, instructors help their students to become proficient in all of these areas.

It’s imperative that students have enough flying experience to substantiate the theory taught in the classroom.

MAF teaches flying in a range of conditions including travelling to different aerodromes, various geographical areas and weather conditions, with and without passengers, and flying at different times of the day.

Experiencing such variables strengthen the pilot’s ability to control the aircraft safely and increase their confidence, as they practise their skills.

Head of Training Andrew Little (right wearing stripes) teaching theory, which underpins the practical

Good training, good decisions

Ethan McMaster describes his experience of flying to Cooktown in the morning:

‘I had to cross over the Atherton Tablelands to get to the coast while dealing with low cloud over the range. The most challenging thing about low cloud is making good decisions about when to turn back in deteriorating conditions.

‘The weather at Cooktown was very windy and it was a new aerodrome I’d never been to before. Despite the conditions, I got o Cooktown without any issues, thanks to great training!’

On the return flight, it was Joe Farren’s turn to pilot the plane:

‘I had to divert from my flight plan on the way back. I had planned to fly down the coast but because of bad weather, I had to divert inland and fly back to Mareeba via Lakeland Downs. I thoroughly enjoyed the views – I saw such vast and beautiful landscapes so much more than if I drove somewhere. It’s such a privilege to fly and live out my childhood passion.’

A range of runways

It’s essential for MAF pilots to land and take-off safely from a range of runways. Runways can be grassy, rocky, sealed, flat or sloped. They can be remote or in the middle of a township where children are playing football.

A good pilot knows how to evaluate all these conditions and risks so that they can fly and land confidently. The MAF Flight Training Centre incorporates all these scenarios into pilot training.

Flying to rural Atherton Aerodrome to learn about ‘short field’ and ‘soft field’ techniques

The cohort are learning how to master ‘short field’ and ‘soft field’ take-offs, and landing on grass airstrips. They’re flying the VH-MAO and VH-WMC to the rural Atherton Aerodrome in Queensland, accompanied by MAF’s Andrew Little and flight Instructor Bridget Ingham.

Despite the short eight-minute flight from Mareeba, Atherton Aerodrome has very different conditions. It’s 900 feet higher in elevation than Mareeba with an airstrip that’s less than 1,200 metres long. It has a grass runway rather than sealed.

Flight Instructor, Bridget Ingham, compares the ‘soft field’ and ‘short field’ techniques:

‘Short field is taking-off and climbing above obstacles in as short a distance as possible. In a soft field landing, you’re touching down as slowly as possible because the surface is soft, so you need to protect the propellor and nose gear from impact.

‘Both techniques are necessary for MAF as we often fly in and out of short, grassy airstrips, which can be wet or soft. MAF’s standard take-off is a ‘short field’ take-off, so it’s important for students to master.’

For Shan Wadham, it was her favourite part of the training:

‘I really enjoyed short field take-offs and landings - it’s the best part of flying I feel.’

The students learn ‘short field’ and ‘soft field’ take-offs and landings at Atherton Aerodrome

Miscalculations could jeopardise safety

In Arnhem Land – in the far north of Australia’s Northern Territory - the shortest airstrip that MAF pilots regularly fly to is Howard Island, which is only 700 metres long. With an airstrip that short, calculations about how many passengers can be safely carried during take-off on a short runway are critical. Any miscalculations could jeopardise the safety of the aircraft during take-off.

In Papua New Guinea, MAF’s shortest runway is around half that length again – Aziana Airstrip in the Eastern Highlands is only 340 metres long. It’s often used to transport coffee beans to larger towns for sale. Aziana is also situated on the slope of a hill with a 14% gradient for pilots to consider. 

Aziana is MAF’s shortest airstrip in PNG at only 340 metres long

‘For the soft field and short field training, each student flew for one hour with their instructor. Those waiting their turn to fly did some ground exercises – calculating theoretical take-off and landing distances for the conditions on the day, which include making allowances for wind, barometric pressure, altitude, temperature and the dry grass surface, then they measure their calculations on the airstrip to see how the aircraft behaved. The results were pretty close!’

Cameron Bruce, particularly enjoyed the challenge of flying in low cloud:

‘Finding the airport, then sharing the airspace with the “Ag Planes” (crop duster aircraft) was a completely different environment – awesome! Doing the soft field take-off was also really cool - it was a very abnormal phase of flight, but a fun exercise to do.’

For most of the students, this was also their first time flying passengers onboard other than their instructor.