“Your love, LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.”
I was juggling sippy cups and snack distribution while Jeff paced around the din that was toddler mid morning play.
He was talking about the Congo and the refugees that continued to find their way to peace and rest in Fort Portal. We had several Congolese families who were faithfully attending our town church and over the years, our earliest in Western Uganda, the invitations to teach and train Christians in the war impoverished regions just over the border grew louder and more persistent.
Jeff was eager to get there.
He made several trips over the years, all of them eventful and most of them dangerous. Rebel factions with roadblocks and an almost non-existent infrastructure made venturing even a mere 30 kilometers into the vast country of Congo a very risky endeavor.
Jeff knew there was a better way.
In most of the villages where we had connections, airstrips had been cut and maintained. In a country with horrific roads, air transport was key. MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) operated in and out of Nyakunde in Eastern Congo when political unrest did not have them relocated so Jeff began asking questions and checking prices for flights.
Most of the time air travel was cost prohibitive for us and so Jeff would drive several hours from our home to the Uganda border, try to locate a secure place to leave the vehicle and then boat across Lake Albert to the Congo border on the other side. The boat ride alone was nearly 3 hours and sometimes perilous. He was boarded one time by armed military men of nationality and allegiance unknown. Scary stuff. Once in the Congo he would endure long and impossible immigration and military negotiations that could take days. He would eventually teach any who could manage to gather and he showed the Jesus film on several occasions when all the negotiations went well.
His Congo trips could last anywhere from two days to over a week and we would be out of communication for most of that time.
Neither of us liked that aspect of the Congo experience and so we were constantly working to alleviate the risk and lack of communication when and how we could.
Mostly we couldn’t.
We prayed a lot around those trips and rested on the Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance most of all. Every time Jeff traveled West, he and I both had a peace about it-- a miracle we knew could come from one source alone.
Back when Jeff and I started dating I very easily surmised that settling with this particular man was going to land us confidently on the edge. His pioneering heart and embrace of any and all adventure endeared him to me and challenged me mercilessly too. But I bet in. With all I had as a matter of fact, and I was not disappointed. Adventure and new things abounded in our life and work just like I knew and expected they would.
Aviation was one of the many adventurous dreams Jeff always nurtured. He flew a few hours in college but due to time and cost restraints he had left that dream simmering while he finished other things. Flying planes was something he mentioned in passing stories here and there and honestly I glossed right over it accepting that flying had it’s draw but most likely wouldn’t be key in our life as we turned to focus on other more pressing demands.
I mistakenly believed that Africa and all it’s adventure would fill us up and not allow much time or energy for anything else.
Over days and weeks though, nearly 7 years into our Western Uganda ministry, the topic of Cessna planes and flight school emerged again to dominate every discussion. I busied myself with all the Mom stuff that engulfed my being at the time, but the din of aviation dreams had begun to accompany every conversation and every prayer.
I could hardly believe it. But it was happening.
Jeff’s dreams and our family’s calling were merging in a challenging and deeply meaningful way. Aviation was a needed tool in our ministry to take the love of Jesus to remote parts of Africa.
On that one particular day, with our two and half year old and our 18 month old giggling and playing around us, Jeff finally said it decisively.
“I’m going to do this, Cheryl. I’m going to get my pilot’s license. What do you think?”
He already knew the answer to that. We both did. I was ahead of him with this realizing by that look in his eyes and the passion with which he had researched every aspect of what lay ahead that this was going to happen before he officially said it. I, with much prayer, had made my peace about it. God knew where I stood (cautious, a tad fearful and somewhat entertained by the irony—long story, but praying for boys and their airplanes had been trained well into my life). I knew God would make me ready for whatever was ahead.
Off we go.
That was in 2001. Jeff began his study. King videos, online courses and flying with instructors any time we could save the fees. Slowly he began to accumulate hours and quickly he absorbed ground school training spending hours in work and study.
He was all in.
Our following furloughs in the States focused heavily on flight training. Most of the earliest training took place in Hillsboro, Oregon. We were generously housed at Jeff’s parents while he made the hours long commute to Hillsboro for flight school.
In May of 2002 Jeff received his private pilots license. We were thrilled. In very gracious provision contributions were made to purchase a plane and Jeff began to shop.
Used car salesmen have nothing on used airplane salesmen as it turned out. The purchase of our Cessna 206 was a long, arduous process requiring Jeff to travel to different countries to fly planes and make decisions. Finally, in the summer of 2003 Jeff made the purchase. A Cessna 206 was awaiting a ferry flight from Bangor, Maine. Jeff began to plan.
He and his previous flight instructor were going to ferry the plane together from Maine to Uganda. Jeff was ecstatic. His research and preparation took much energy and time. Flying over the North Atlantic in a Cessna was no walk in the park but Jeff was exuberant over the adventure and opportunity.
We had three kids by this time and I was simmering the fourth as the plans for the ferry flight took shape. Jeff wanted the plane secured in Uganda before the baby came and so he and John met up in Bangor, Maine in early October of 2003.
The grand adventure took off. The trip they planned could be done in two weeks time if weather cooperated.
It did not. The trip extended to five long weeks, during which time Jeff gained practical experience in real world instrument flying. Jeff’s experiences on the ferry flight set him on a course to gain his instrument rating. We anticipated this nearing achievement as we celebrated Jeff’s imminent arrival back to Fort Portal. He called me on a Saturday morning to let me know the day’s schedule. They planned to take off from Djibouti and land in Addis Ababa that day. And on the following Monday they would fly from Addis to Fort Portal.
Jeff would be home very soon.
This (then) pregnant Mama was more than ready for him to arrive.
I received a second phone call that Saturday morning. (Second phone calls with in minutes are not my favorite thing on flying days, FYI.) The Cessna had gone down just minutes after take off from Djibouti.
It seems that the engine-out landing in Djibouti was another beginning for us.
Jeff and John miraculously walked away from the episode unscathed which locked the whole ordeal into the ‘victory’ category (in my heart anyway.) That second phone call could have gone a whole other way.
In the decade that followed, Jeff persistently and faithfully led a Cessna 206 rebuild. The engine was lifted from the aircraft in Djibouti and shipped to a mission agency for restoration while the body of the plane made it’s eventful way to us in Uganda. Over very many years, and so much back (and heart) breaking struggle that Cessna found it’s way to being whole. There were very many setbacks that would leave me waiting for Jeff to ‘call it’ but he would always regroup and begin again. The dream to fly was a calling too and until we received new marching orders we would continue along the same path no matter how many times we had to restart. Jeff’s persistence was inspiring, costly (mostly for him personally) and beautiful. In very many ways. I learned so much through the entire endeavor.
Finally, in the summer of 2012 (nine years later!) the ferried plane flew from the Fort Portal airstrip in fist pumping victory.
We were in the air again. The plane became a working tool for the ministry and Jeff set out to secure the instrument rating he had long ago set aside because all funds were needed for the plane rebuild.
Our furlough of 2013 was again flight training focused. Jeff inched closer to the instrument rating and had the commercial license looming in his periphery.
All or nothing, as they say.
Set backs continued, but so did the resilience. Jeff continued to press into the challenge of an aviation ministry.
On August 23, 2014 I was the recipient of another rapid succession of calls. Jeff was flying with some church leaders to speak for a conference in Arua, Uganda. The first phone call informed me that he would take off at noon and land at 2pm in the Northern Ugandan town.
Thirty minutes later Jeff’s number rang me again. It took some interminable seconds before Jeff’s voice responded to me on that second call. I could only hear crowd noise for a bit and I continued to call out Jeff’s name over the phone trying unsuccessfully to calm my rapidly increasing heart rate. It was the most afraid I felt the whole day.
I finally (gratefully) heard him speak.
There had been a crash. Jeff was shook, but standing. I raced out the door.
The plane was in a field (garden) just past the runway. I was driving fast in that direction and praying out loud the entire way. Words tumbling from places I couldn’t quite discern.
“Don’t let this destroy him Father. Not like this. I have no idea what it is you have in mind for all of this---but Lord, we need you here. In every way. Help us please. Do not let Satan have this. Jeff must stand. He must fly. I’ll hold his arms up but I need to know this from you first. I don’t know how much a man can take, but Lord please don’t let him be destroyed. Help him fly again.”
Just to be clear. I am not the type of person who would pray such of my own volition. I was driving toward a plane crash. That happened when my husband was pilot in command.
I am not usually the person ready to head straight back into a circumstance that brought pain or trial. I pull back from difficulty of my own natural self.
These words poured from my depths as I sped over the (still very) bumpy roads. I was asking for God to help my husband fly again. And I meant it.
This desire could only have emerged from one Source.
That particular August day still defies description for me. Even though I will most likely try for words at some point.
Only, standing in that deluge of miraculous saving with our shattered hearts littering the freshly tilled ground around us flying became life or death in a whole new way.
The tide of Jeff’s prolonged life shored me in and I accepted the challenge to bet in again. My prayers have remained, by His Spirit, dedicated to Jeff’s continuing advancement as a pilot.
The months following the crash have been difficult ones for many reasons.
The crash landing was violent. Jeff would carry the images long.
But he knew. And I knew.
We would not quit defeated.
The next right thing, the most faithful step forward was up.
Earlier this year after many exacting days of work and training Jeff successfully completed his instrument rating check ride.
And yesterday, in a valiant push against ever emerging obstacles he successfully completed his commercial pilot check ride.
Check rides and their respective training that involve among other things flying blind and power-off landings are quite a challenge anyway but when you are in the wake of an intense power-off crash the steps forward can feel overwhelming.
Stepping into that challenge required faith muscle strength this aviation dream has exercised daily for the last 13 years.
What an eventful journey. And it’s not over. I have absolutely no idea what is before us still, but all that is required is our faithful commitment to the next right thing. The Creator of these skies knows the way we take and He will never fail.
We remain, safely held and led by our Savior and Friend, all in.
No words for how proud I am of him.
His courage has always been inherent, but this endeavor has tested and tried that courage to exhausting limits.
He is running his race. The crash cut in on him, but he got back up and presses on to finish well.
It is very humbling to succumb to testing.
It is an excruciating privilege to walk this trying way.
As Jeff’s closest witness I testify.
Absolutely nothing is impossible with God.
Decades ago, we set out to tell people this.
Instead, God whispered, “Show them.”