Meet Northern Ireland families flying brave missions for Christmas
Mission Aviation Fellowship’s planes have been delivering medicine and food to the world’s most inaccessible communities for 70 years by flying on to precarious desert and jungle airstrips, and even landing on swamps, rivers and lakes. Judith Cole talks to a pilot and two aircraft engineers who left home in Northern Ireland to join this lifesaving work.
‘I love being able to reach people who are isolated’
Jason Robinson (43), a pilot from Coagh, Co Tyrone, and his wife Allison (43), from Portavogie, Co Down, are about to embark on mission work within Aboriginal communities in northern Australia. Jason says:
Aviation was never something that we chose for full-time mission, but it was something God chose for us. Now, we are flying in remote areas where no-one else wants to fly, on very short, dirt runways just cut into the bushland or very near the beach. I love being able to reach totally isolated people with the services we take for granted and with the great news of the gospel.
I grew up in Coagh, Co Tyrone, with my parents and two sisters, and we attended the local Baptist church. At the age of six I asked God to save me and I knew then that I would follow His plan for my life. Over the coming years I developed a strong desire to go to Australia. God was giving me a heart for adventure, I loved to ride motorbikes and horses, drive anything with wheels and my cousin and I even built a makeshift glider. On a very windy day on his parents' farm outside Coagh I had my first flight, and also my first crash-landing into a barbed wire fence, but God had a much bigger flying adventure in mind.
I have so many good memories of growing up in Northern Ireland, and some bad ones too. As I watched our wee country being divided by terrorism, God used this to burden my heart that life could end without warning and it was important to focus on His plan.
To say I didn't enjoy school much would be an understatement. On my last day I ran out not knowing what to do next. I had a chat with the RAF careers officer but I was put off because he was telling me all about the courses I would need to do to join as a pilot and it sounded too much like school. The airlines didn't interest me at all, so any ideas I had about flying didn't seem to fit. So, because I also enjoyed working with my hands, I became a plumber and my dream to travel to Australia was put on hold for a while. Indeed, it was 12 years later that I had enough money and the time was right to make the trip. I travelled with a friend for one year and then, when I returned home I saw an advertisement for plumbers in Australia. I applied, but it was three years before my visa was granted. In the meantime, I met my now wife, Ally, and it was exciting to know I wasn't going on this adventure alone.
We were married in 2005 and bought our first home in Tamborine, just south of Brisbane. I ran a plumbing business and Ally worked in administration and sales. However, everything changed in 2012 when God started to speak to us about Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). I was given a book, Eyes Turned Skyward by Max Myers, which is the story of an MAF pilot. Then, when we were at church in Mareeba, North Queensland, I happened to be sitting beside a man who worked for MAF and who told us all about the organisation's work - and its need for pilots. Ally and I felt complete assurance that this was the path God wanted us to follow. After a phonecall to MAF, a lot of tests and prayers, we moved to Melbourne in January 2013 to start Bible College. Ally completed a Diploma in Ministry and I did the three years of flight training. I will never forget the first time I flew on my own. Gathering speed down the runway and lifting off into the air is an amazing feeling - there is a great sense of freedom but also of responsibility.
We have completed all our training and arrived in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, in November.
Soon, we will head out to one of the remote Aboriginal communities that MAF serves in. As pilots we have to be able to quickly do medical evacuations and fly between the many little communities. We aim to have outreach weeks where we can preach, show Christian films, distribute Bibles and meet each community's individual needs. Here, you are the pilot, the booking office, the accountant, the maintenance man, the mechanic and the pastor.
Our nearest large "town" is Katherine, about 1,000km away, and the nearest city is Darwin, 1,400km. Most of the road from Katherine to Gove is dirt track. Living in Gove, we have access to Woolworths but out in the communities the groceries have to be ordered online at Gove, taken to the airport and then flown out to your location.
For Christmas this year we spent time with friends on the beach, being careful of the crocodiles - there are many so we can't swim in the sea.
It is certainly very different to home. Keeping in touch with family is quite easy now because of the internet - we can talk via FaceTime, although we are nine hours ahead so it has to be carefully co-ordinated!
But we are privileged to be here - the people who support us prayerfully and financially have enabled us to be here and we want to thank each and every one that God has laid on their heart to support His work through us.
‘It’s a privilege to work in the mission field’
Glenn Cousley, an aircraft engineer from Moneymore, Co Tyrone, lives in Mareeba, Australia, with his wife Julie-Anne and their children Joshua (15), Benjamin (13) and Esther (10). Glenn says:
The most satisfying part of my job is ensuring that an aircraft is ready to fly for MAF in the Third World, bringing help to the needy. My day starts at 7.30am, with morning devotions at the hangar, and then work begins at 8am. This can involve carrying out a 100 hours' check on a plane, changing the oil and filter, checking the rest of the aircraft, or undertaking sheet metal work on the aircraft or flight controls.
The MAF base in Mareeba is a maintenance base, and we support mission programmes in Gove (Northern Territory), Papua New Guinea (PNG), Timor-Leste, Bangladesh and Mongolia. We also provide technical support to many of the African programmes.
Planes will fly in from Gove and PNG for heavy maintenance. The projects we are involved in require removing many of the components from the aircraft and overhauling them. The aircraft may also be repainted in our paint shop and then returned to the programme as an almost new aircraft, ready to be used in remote areas again. This process can take from 6-12 weeks.
From 2011 until arriving in Mareeba in 2014, we worked in Uganda. I was a dangerous goods trainer and vehicle workshop manager. This was a regional job which required that I travel to other MAF programmes within East Africa to carry out training for pilots and ground operations staff. Then, in 2014, we arrived in Mareeba, where I have retrained as an aircraft engineer.
Before Uganda, we were in Tanzania from 2005. As vehicle workshop manager, I set up a stock control system, put safety procedures in place, conducted training with local staff and raised the standards of vehicle maintenance. Julie-Anne helped in Sunday School at the Anglican Church in Dodoma and assisted with a children's club.
Before embarking upon mission work, I worked in a family garage business and then I was a lecturer in motor vehicle studies at Fermanagh College for 10 years.
I was 25 when I became a Christian. I had many Christian friends and saw how the Lord worked in their lives - this was a big influence on me and it is a privilege to now work in the mission field.
‘Our kids love how free the lifestyle is’
I am from Ballymena originally but spent much of my early childhood in Africa. My parents were missionairies with Tearfund in the early Eighties, in Tanzania, and that introduced me to what mission work was all about - serving others less well off than myself and helping them wherever I could. We lived at Msalato Bible College, about seven miles from Dodoma, where the airfield was. I remember living alongside the other MAF families and we used to take MAF flights to the capital, Dar es Salaam, as the roads back then were poor. After leaving Tanzania at the age of 13, it was a dream of mine to return one day. I didn't realise that God had already planted a vision of His plan for my future.
Glenn and I met when he was island hopping with a friend in Greece and I was going to a resort with a friend. He took my phone number at the airport in Athens and when we returned to Northern Ireland the two guys took me and my friend for dinner.
We married in 1999 and while Glenn lectured, I was a primary school teacher. Now we live in a developed country again, Australia, it is very different to life in Africa. I'm involved in teaching at church and in Sunday School. Mareeba is a small farming town 69km from Cairns. We have sunshine 300 days a year, but humidity was at 76% last week. Our children love their new friends and the freedom of the lifestyle here. They tell me they have opportunities at Mareeba State High and Primary schools that are hard to find anywhere else, like maths camp, year group camps and writers' camp. And there are many sporting opportunities, like triathlon and kayak polo.
On Christmas Day, we got together with friends. Just like at home, people here like to put up lights on their houses at Christmas, and there are house and street competitions. There's a Christmas tree in the town and a carol service which, like nearly everything else here, is held outside.
We keep in touch with family back home using Skype or WhatsApp. We're nine hours ahead of Northern Ireland and 18 hours in front of Glenn's brother in America.
‘I had always thought of a missionary as a preacher’
Steven Thompson (41), from Newtownards, worked at Bombardier before transferring his skills to the mission field. He lives with his wife Michelle (39) in Mareeba, Australia, with their children Samuel (12), Isaac (10), Benjamin (8), and Avalon (4). Steven says:
I grew up in Newtownards hearing the stories of missionaries from my home church. I will always remember James and Dorie Gunning, who served in Brazil with Acre Gospel Mission and how much love and compassion they had for Brazil and its people; but I never thought that it was me. I always thought a missionary was a preacher or evangelist, and that's not my gift. But of course a missionary can also be someone working in the background.
Both my parents became believers when they were young and have a strong faith. They brought us to church and Sunday School; however, that doesn't make us a Christian. The Christian faith is a personal understanding of Biblical truth, a message of a promise - Christ born, a message of love and Christ's sacrifice - "what greater love than this, that a man should lay down His life for another", and a message of a hope and a future, Christ's eternity. I am very thankful for my parents' influence in my life and for their continued support, even as we live far from home with four of their grandchildren. My older brother and two younger sisters are all married with young families - that's one of the hard things about living overseas, missing out on seeing nephews and nieces growing up.
After I left school in 1992, I started my apprenticeship at Bombardier Aerospace. I studied aeronautical engineering and trained as an airframe fitter, but I also worked in the tool room and then moved to a fabrication and pipe shop making sub-assemblies for various aircraft. We also made de-icing systems, hydraulic lines, cabin ducting, and fire extinguisher systems for aircraft engines and systems, using stainless steel, titanium and aluminium.
I worked as a mission volunteer in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2003, an experience which confirmed to me that full time mission work was a calling for me.
I signed up for Bible School and mission training with New Tribes Mission (NTM) in North Cotes, England, and it was there that I met Michelle. Her parents are both originally from Belfast and emigrated to Australia after they married; Michelle was born in Melbourne and was about 10 when her mum brought her and her sister and brother back to Northern Ireland. Michelle's brother now lives in Melbourne and her sister and family in Cullybackey.
Michelle and I moved to Hoskins, PNG, in 2008 with Samuel and Isaac. I worked in technical services, helping Bush missionaries with their solar electric power, and also fixing vehicles, washing machines, sewing machines, water pumps, building houses, repairing boats and lawnmowers.
We left Hoskins three years later after the little mission school closed and with a need to deal with some health issues, and returned to Northern Ireland, not really knowing what the future held. It was clear that there is a great need for licensed aircraft engineers within missionary aviation, so we decided to move to enable me to work from MAF's base in Mareeba.
Here, we do heavy maintenance of aircraft from PNG, Arnhem Land and East Timor, and engineers also travel overseas to support aircraft operating in Mongolia, East Timor and Bangladesh. A small inspection may be an oil and filter change, inspecting the engine for loose bolts or damage, inspecting the main fuselage for wear, damage or corrosion, and then carrying out any repairs required. A larger inspection may require all of the smaller inspection, plus inspection of wings and control surfaces, and the engine.
Christmas is of course quite different here, with the hot weather, for one thing. But the children enjoyed spending time with their grandmother, who stayed with us over Christmas, and Michelle's brother and fiancee also came over for the holiday.