Part 3: What keeps a pilot coming and help in an emergency?

Do you remember some of the Oksapmin Secondary School students’ theories why our pilots keep coming to their village shared in our previous communications?
Here are two more:

Momai: They do it because they would like to show their love for all people, despite of racial expressions, and to help maintain better living standards. In addition, our remote place transports out most of the vegetables to help them with their healthy diet especially in towns and cities. That is why the pilots, in spite of difficulty, come to serve people.

Sinda: They want to protect us from getting illnesses and dying from them. They also come because they really want to help us by providing services. Overall, in order to move cargo and people from one place to another even though they don’t like it, they have to fly for our lives to be good and blessed.

Richie Axon, a pilot flying for MAF Papua New Guinea since 2010 and who has landed at Tekin airstrip more than 200 times, shares some of his motivation to become a MAF pilot. Richie has been flying pretty much all across mainland PNG since joining MAF. He and his family are based in Telefomin, an outstation in the west of Papua New Guinea.

However, Richie is one of the pilots who, in the uncertainty of COVID-19 in April, was sent back to his home country, Australia, with his family. Back in March, the scheduled final check flight for him to be released for line operations on the C208 couldn’t happen as the only authorised checking pilot and his wife were unable to continue their journey from Germany to PNG when the borders were closed. With no training and checking pilots present in-country for the foreseeable future and the unpredictable development of the COVID-19 situation in PNG, management decided to have the family moved to their home country.

We hope and pray that the Axons will soon be able to return to PNG so Richie can again do what God has called him to do and what he calls “the best job in the world.”
Enjoy reading his story!

What’s your story? Where are you from?
I grew up with parents who followed Jesus. We moved around when I was a child as my dad worked on farms in New South Wales, Australia. By Australian standards, we were not rich but we never went hungry and always had lots of fun together as a family. We always went to church on Sunday, but God was part of our life all through the week.

When I was 7, our church went on a family camp for a weekend. The lady who ran the kids‘ programme explained the gospel to us and I trusted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, based on John 3:16, because he died for my sin. I am still growing in my understanding of what a wonderful thing he has done for me.

How did you hear about MAF and actually became a MAF pilot?
My Aunt was a nurse in PNG working with the Australian Baptist Missionary Society in the Baiyer at Kumbwareta, and I read stories of missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Eric Liddell (China) and Jim Elliot (Ecuador) and Richard Wurmbrand (Romania), and I wanted to do something for God with my life.
I first knew about MAF when I saw a poster of a brown and yellow MAF Cessna flying over the jungle. I didn’t know anything about them, but knew that flying aeroplanes and working for God would be the best job in the world. So all through school and after leaving home, I had this thought that one day I would like to be a missionary pilot.

In 2006, about a year after my wife and I got married, we decided to go Bible College since we had no debts or other commitments and it seemed a good opportunity to be equipped for what God might have for us later on. While we were at Bible College (2007-2008), we realised that now was a good time to get involved in mission, so we applied to MAF and were accepted, and in 2010 came to fly in PNG, when our oldest child was 6 months old.

We never had a specific call from God as some people seem to have, but believe that he wants “committed volunteers,” and that it’s the work of all his people to tell the story with our words and actions of the One who has brought us out of darkness into his light (1 Peter 2:9).

Richie Axon talking to passengers at Wobagen

Where did you learn to fly?
Armidale, NSW, Australia

Is being a pilot your only training/profession? What did you do before joining MAF?
I have a truck licence so I can drive semi-trailers. I wanted to join the airforce after leaving school so they could pay for me to learn how to fly, but I didn’t get good enough marks, and I was kind of mentally burned out, so I just worked on farms for a couple of years. Then after saving some money, I had the opportunity to learn to fly, so I worked on farms and drove trucks while I learnt to fly.
This didn’t pay very well, so it took 4 years to get my commercial licence.

What does a typical day as a MAF pilot look like for you?
Usually, I start work at 7:00 am. I unlock the office and turn on the computer and check any NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) that apply to the day’s programme. Then, I unlock the aeroplane and do the daily inspection. Once the base staff have completed the manifest and got weather reports and loaded the aeroplane, we pray as a team, asking for God’s blessing of strength and wisdom, for pilots and ground staff. This is really vital and probably the most important thing we can do all day. We are all in his hands, but so easily forget it.

The flying for the day has been planned by the programmer who does their best to consider weather and loading and “a thousand” other things. But I like to talk about having a “preference sheet” instead of a “flight plan” because so often there are changes as we go through the day.

The day usually follows the pattern of filling the manifest and loading, startup, take off, fly to the destination, land, shutdown, unload and repeat.

What we carry in the aeroplane is really varied – it may be building materials for a school or house, medical supplies for aid posts or school supplies. Our passengers might be pastors or Bible School teachers, students or medevac patients, workers travelling to or from their village or just people going someplace. I really enjoy having time to talk to people at the different airstrips, and hope that most of the time I’m a blessing.

We get back to Telefomin anywhere from 14:30 – 17:00, depending on the weather and how many changes come up. Then there is about 30-45min of paper and computer work, checking emails and reviewing the next day’s programme before going home. I live about 50 metres from the base, so I love the short walk to get home.

Richie weighing some passengers bags of fresh local produce to take to market

What do you value the most about being a MAF pilot? Is there anything particularly rewarding?
As a pilot, I enjoy getting outside and going somewhere. I like working with machinery and the challenges of fitting things into the aeroplane. I enjoy working with people.

Working with MAF, I thank God we are able to help overcome the isolation for people, knowing that short flights are equal to days of hard walking.

As a pilot in PNG, I enjoy the constant variety of weather, terrain, loading, almost everything about the work.

I try to pray with each medevac patient that I fly and I’ve been really blessed later when someone came up to me and said “Thank you for praying for me. God has healed me and now I’m well enough to go home.” I pray that God would grant them spiritual life as well.

What are some challenges of being a MAF pilot?
Knowing that the flying we do has such an impact makes it hard to say no, because when we say no it means that someone misses out. In those times, I have to pray and trust God with the outcome, believing that he is in control and that he always does what is good.

Sometimes we start thinking too much about the revenue or getting all the flying done and miss opportunities to care for people and share the hope we have in Jesus. With all the work we try to do, it can be hard to be sensitive to the opportunities.

You’re married and a father of three beautiful children. Choosing a life like that needs the whole family to agree and be happy with it.
My wife and I together made the decision to follow Jesus into mission, and we didn’t feel that God was leading us to one specific place, so we said to MAF that we would go where we were most needed and that was Papua New Guinea. In the 10 years that we’ve been with MAF in PNG, there have been some hard times, especially for my wife, but we remind ourselves that we didn’t come here for the lifestyle, although there are things we enjoy about living and working here.

We came to use what God has given us, to serve others so they would know how great He is and hopefully come to know and trust Him for themselves. He is our provider so we keep going.

Our kids have spent their lives between PNG and Australia, so it’s partly home for them. Sometimes people think that having a choice will make them happy, but actually, having a purpose and being loved are more important, so we love our kids and remind them of God’s love, and of why we do what we do. They have good days and bad days like all of us. We are blessed these days with the internet and so many resources for schooling and they play with their PNG friends, so really they don’t miss out on much that matters.

How comes that you don’t fly for another airline (back in your home country)?
God’s people exist to share him by their words and actions, using whatever he gives them. We will be happiest when we seek to honour him, even when times are hard. He has given us the opportunity and skills and support of others to be able to do this with MAF in PNG. Finding your joy in loving God and serving others is much better than making lots of money or having a comfortable life.

What comes to mind if you think of Tekin as a pilot who has landed there more than 200 times…
I love Tekin, although not so much when it’s windy. We did our bush orientation in Tekin and have some lovely friends there.

What advice would you like to give young students like the ones at Tekin?
Read God’s Word and ask him to help you know Jesus. Make him the centre of your life. There is nothing more important than your relationship with him, because only he takes away your sin, it’s only his opinion that counts in eternity, and only he can make you truly happy.

Work hard, at school, or uni, or work, or in the village; but trust God with the results.
Don’t build your life on cargo, or money, or health, or a big name, because it’s God who gives them to you and he can take them away. Use what he gives you for his glory, he will satisfy you.

How is Covid-19 affecting your work? How is it affecting your family? What do you feel is God teaching you through this situation?
We had to leave PNG and return to Australia because at the same time that COVID-19 hit, MAF PNG had a series of incidents that caused us to stop the operation. It seemed best to MAF leadership, and to us, that we wait in Australia until things get sorted out. So, I’m working remotely on some projects. Sitting at a computer is not my preferred work but I’m thankful that I can still help out.

We had only a short time to leave PNG, so we didn’t have time to think about it much. It has taken some time to get used to the idea of being in Australia again, and not knowing how long it will be for. Our kids have settled into a little Christian school here and have enjoyed new experiences and making friends here. We miss Telefomin and our friends there, but God is still good.

God has been teaching us that we need to make plans, but hold them loosely, and lean on him for wisdom and strength to cope with changes. No matter where we are in the world, as God’s people we can live to know and love him more, and share the wonder of his love with those around us.

Richie doing wieght and balance calculation back in the days when he was flying the Twin Otter