On cloud nine when I became a ‘co-pilot’ with MAF

On cloud nine when I became a ‘co-pilot’ with MAF

Long-time Mission Aviation Fellowship supporter and journalist John Butterworth and his wife Jan spent two weeks in Uganda in August this year. They went to see MAF pilot Andrew Parker, his wife Liz and their children Esther, Ben and Joel. John, who is also a Church of England Reader in Worcester, tells of a big surprise on their third day of their holiday.

It is every boy’s dream to sit in the front seat of a plane next to the pilot.

Story and photos by John Butterworth 

I had to wait until I was 65 years old but I was still as excited as any youngster as I put on my headset when I was invited to join MAF pilot Eivind Lindtjørn in the cockpit of the 17-seater Cessna 208 Caravan.

We had arrived only on the Sunday to see the mission society’s work at first hand and on the Monday we were told there were two free seats on the plane the next day. Were we interested?

We were not going to miss that chance of a lifetime and we were ready for the 6.30am lift to the Kajjansi airfield between Kampala and Entebbe.

Leaving Kajjansi

After a safety briefing, and the other six passengers and luggage safely onboard, we then had clearance for take-off for the first of our three stops, Kotido in remote North Eastern Uganda, home of the Karamojong people.

With my headset on it gave me a fascinating glimpse of the two-way communication between the control tower and the pilot.

Ten minutes after take-off I was slightly unnerved to see heavy rain and lightning on the left side of the plane.

It was also a little worrying to see Eivind looking out of the window and steering his way through a gap in clouds as he explained the plane was not built to go through heavy rain clouds, particularly if there were hail stones.

'Although I had been an MAF supporter all my life it was amazing to hear at first hand some of the vital work that the missionary does all over the world.' 

But he reassured me that was normal procedure and the rain soon stopped. As the sun came out we enjoyed the spectacular scenery of crossing the River Nile and looking down on the new hydro-electric dam being built hundreds of feet below.

The headset gave me the chance to chat one-to-one with Eivind as he explained how he had joined MAF and how he had grown up partly in Norway and partly in Ethiopia where both his parents and grandparents had been missionaries.

A stop at Kotido 

Soon it was the first landing of the day in Kotido. I looked in vain for the grass strip runway as we flew over sparsely populated areas with tribal settlements and small flocks of sheep and goats.

There was no one to be seen as we made a fairly smooth landing in a scrubland clearing.

As the plane came to a stop, out of nowhere appeared villagers in colourful tribal dress to greet us. I had seen that type of picture in many missionary magazines but now those pages came to life.

Then on the horizon there was a cloud of smoke as a vehicle came towards the grass track and two English grandparents boarded our plane after saying tearful farewells to their grandchildren and their two parents working as Christian doctors in remote Uganda.

It would probably be a couple of years before the family would be reunited again.

But what an itinerary for Gran and Grandpa: Kotido – Moroto – Soroti – Kajjansi – Entebbe – Dubai – London Heathrow. No other passengers on Emirates Airlines would be able to match that.

We were soon taking off again, this time for the short hop to Moroto to drop off and pick up more passengers before flying on to Soroti where I changed places with my wife Jan and she put on the headset for the return journey sitting next to the pilot.

Back to Kajjansi 

Back at the MAF base we had lunch with some of the other MAF pilots, including Andrew Parker who had flown in a smaller Cessna 206 plane to north west Uganda that morning.

After a tour of the hangar and the repair centre we were taken back to our Kampala hotel after an incredible day.

Although I had been an MAF supporter all my life it was amazing to hear at first hand some of the vital work that the missionary does all over the world transporting sick patients to hospitals, taking Christian workers to remote outposts and bringing important relief to people in Uganda and South Sudan.

I was privileged to be a ‘co-pilot’ and to have such a bird’s eye view of Christian work on this flying visit that few have the chance to see.

'With my headset on it gave me a fascinating glimpse of the two-way communication between the control tower and the pilot.'