Mission Pilot’s Remarkable 10,000-Mile Trip
An Austria-to-Indonesia flight carries on his father’s work.
By Teresa Costello, Southern Asia-Pacific Division
Mission pilot Gary Roberts has flown airplanes from the United States to destinations in the Philippines, Angola, and South America. Once he even airlifted an ill baby elephant for medical treatment in Chad.
All those experiences helped prepare Roberts for the delivery of a mission plane from Austria to its new home at Adventist Aviation Indonesia in Papua, a complex trip that involved stops in nearly a dozen countries, obtaining permits from 17 countries, and more than 80 hours of flying time.
The flight was also personal. Roberts was piloting a plane to replace a plane that had crashed 20 months earlier, killing his father, veteran mission pilot Bob Roberts.
It was not only his father’s legacy, however, that compelled Roberts to make the 16,335-kilometer (10,150-mile) flight over the Middle East and southern Asia, countries located in the so-called 10/40 window (between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator) that have the
highest level of socioeconomic challenges and least access to the gospel message.
“There is still a great need in many of the countries,” Gary Roberts said of the countries that he flew over and prayed over during his trip. “I just ask you to continue to uplift them and our church administration there.”
He also expressed gratitude for people around the world who had prayed for him during the sometimes perilous journey filled with setbacks but also opportunities to share God.
The Pilatus PC-6 Porter airplane will be used for mission outreach in the 10/40 window of southeast Asia.
Acquiring the Plane
Obstacles always seem to accompany trips of great magnitude, and Roberts faced the first when he carried out an initial inspection of the aircraft in Vienna and found corrosion in the engine. “It was bad enough that we thought we would have to send the engine to a shop to be opened up, cleaned, and inspected before we could bring it here,” said his wife, Wendy, who closely followed the flight from their home in Papua.
The plane’s owner, a resident of Jordan, called off the sale when he found out about the rust. But several months later he contacted the Adventists and offered the plane at a significantly lower price, taking into account the reality that the required repairs would cost an estimated $150,000.
Then the Adventists learned that the plane’s paperwork had not been kept up-to-date, and they spent considerable time sorting that out. After that, Gary Roberts traveled to the owner’s home in Jordan to seal the deal.
Following the purchase, Roberts decided to fly the Swiss-built plane to its factory in Switzerland to have the work done on the engine. That’s when a big miracle occurred, his wife said. “When he arrived, they put their scope, the camera, into the engine, and it was clean!” she said.
The factory inspector had seen the engine photos sent earlier by the Adventists, and he asked Gary Roberts with astonishment, “Are you sure this is the same engine?”
“We believe God healed the engine,” Wendy Roberts said.
Up and Away
Many months passed while the Adventists processed the paperwork and importation permission to bring the plane into Indonesia. Gary Roberts finally headed to Vienna in mid-November to pick up the plane. The plan was to meet his copilot, Dwayne Harris of Philippine Adventist Medical Aviation Services, and fly out of Vienna on November 19, 2015.
Harris’ flight from Manila to Vienna, however, was delayed by an ill passenger, so he and Roberts agreed to meet instead in Athens, Greece. Harris arrived in Athens on November 20, only to learn that Roberts had faced a delay getting a visa for India and would only arrive with the plane on November 22.
It was vital to stay on schedule. Roberts had started planning the itinerary and securing permits for the trip in February 2015. Some permits were valid only for a certain time period, and any unexpected delay could require him to submit a new application.
Roberts landed as planned on November 22, but strong winds forced them to wait until November 23 to leave for the next planned stop, Egypt.
Early the next morning, November 23, Roberts and Harris flew to Egypt with minimal complications. At an airport on the Mediterranean shore a young woman who helped refuel aircraft asked Roberts what he was doing with the plane. He told her that he worked for God. “God?” she replied with surprise. “Is there even a God?”
Roberts said he was reminded that Christians have a duty to share their faith wherever they go. “We still have a lot of work to do, even in modern countries,” he said.
The next day, November 24, the pilots encountered unexpected ice as they flew over Saudi Arabia en route from Egypt to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. “Across the desert, you’d think it would be nice weather because you’re over a dry desert,” Harris said. “But it was the worst weather of the whole flight.”
The plane started picking up dangerous ice as it cruised at 3,050 meters (10,000 feet). The pilots requested and received permission to change their route and descend to about 2750 meters (9,000 feet). The bad weather and resulting diversion caused the plane to land several hours after sunset.
The Last Leg
In Abu Dhabi the two pilots parted ways. Harris, who hadn’t secured an Indian visa, applied at the Indian embassy, and Roberts took off on a commercial flight to Indonesia to attend the previously scheduled year-end meetings of the East Indonesia Union Conference, for which he was a delegate. Ultimately, Harris wasn’t able to obtain the visa, and he flew home to the Philippines.
Roberts returned to Abu Dhabi after four days. Technical issues delayed his departure by one day. From there Roberts flew almost nine hours with good weather to India. Next he flew to Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Bolstered by many people worldwide praying for the journey, Roberts continued on to Thailand, to Borneo, and then to several stops in Indonesia before reaching the Adventist Aviation Indonesia headquarters on December 8. Roberts became the first known Adventist mission pilot to fly around the world longitudinally in a small aircraft.
At the airstrip he was met by his wife, Wendy, and daughter, Cherise.
Roberts and his family moved to Indonesia after the death of his father to continue his work with Adventist Aviation Indonesia. The elder Roberts and one passenger died on April 9, 2014, when the Quest Kodiak plane he was piloting struggled to become airborne on takeoff and crashed into a bridge at the end of the runway at the headquarters of Adventist Aviation Indonesia. Gary Roberts now flies in the same areas his father once flew.
The arrival of the new plane means that Adventist Aviation Indonesia will be able to expand its work of spreading the gospel in practical ways. The plane will be used to transport pastors, Bible workers, missionaries, and literature to areas inaccessible by vehicles. In addition, the plane will act as an ambulance, ferrying people from remote areas to medical care in larger towns.
“We pray that many will be saved for eternity because of this tool God has given us to reach those in remote places,” Wendy Roberts said.