Adventures of an Alaskan Aviator for Christ
by: Elaine Tomski
Have you ever imagined soaring like an eagle? How would it feel to have nothing but warm sun on your back and the cool wind beneath your wings? What type of patchwork quilt would the hills, valleys, and fields create as your piercing eyes scan far and wide? It seems a luxury to consider flying through the air and yet, in some remote regions of the world, taking flight is a necessity.
Take, for instance, Alaskans living in the over fifty villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. This region is about 400 miles west of the nearest road system. Nearly 30,000 Eskimo, 1,000 Indian, and 4,000 non-native people live in this remote area. Although the region lacks roads, airstrips exist so small airplanes can provide necessary transportation for people and resources. Over the past two summers pilot John Troyer, his wife Kat and son Abel have been on a mission to deliver people, resources, and the Good News of the Gospel to the Kako Retreat Center in this southwestern region of Alaska.
BECOMING A PILOT
As a child, John never dreamed of flying an airplane. Later in life, while working in Florida, he became curious about the planes flying overhead near his workplace. John says, “I enjoy machines and mechanical stuff, so I was amazed that something man-made could fly through the air.” Initially, he didn’t become a pilot to go somewhere, but because of his fascination with airplanes.
By April of 2010, John was taking flying lessons at Harry Clever Field in New Philadelphia, Ohio. Using a small two-seater Cessna 150, he flew the required 40 hours, passed his exams, and had his private license within six months. Since he and Kat were dating at the time, they would fly to different airports and have lunch. Not many couples can lay claim to such a unique dating experience.
After receiving his private pilot license, John and Kat committed their lives to Christ and were baptized. A Christian friend suggested John could become a missionary pilot. John responded with, “What’s that?!” His friend explained how Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) seeks to address the problem of isolation experienced by many tribes around the globe. John describes it as “airplanes that serve around the world, to spread the Gospel where there’s no road infrastructure.” John and Kat also heard a missionary pilot speak at their church. John says, “That sparked my interest and over time, it felt like God was calling us to that.” They knew God was calling them to something more than just working a job and flying airplanes for fun. Getting a commercial pilot’s license would be time consuming and expensive, but necessary if John was going to serve as a missionary pilot. So, they prayed.
John and Kat were married in the summer of 2011. Soon after, she says, “Our pastor suggested there would be people from our church who would be more than willing to support us and send us to school.” And there were. Extremely generous people sponsored John and Kat through two years at the School of Mission Aviation Technology (SMAT) in Ionia, Michigan. John says, “We could not have done it ourselves.” At SMAT, John received an additional year of flight training and a year of maintenance instruction. A missionary pilot must understand how to repair his plane. Following schooling, 500 additional hours of flight must be logged before certification is complete. To fulfill this requirement, SMAT directed them to Alaska, where the Kako Retreat Center welcomes pilots needing to build hours for certification.
ADVENTURING INTO MISSIONS
Alaska is known for adventure and that’s exactly what the Troyer family discovered. Being humorous, John reports, “Summer seemed to fly by way too fast!” Every Monday for six weeks, from June to mid-July, planes flew to pick up around 40 kids and deliver them to Kako Retreat Center. Summer camp for kids ages 8-18 included games, rock climbing, archery, canoeing, swimming, rappelling, and Bible time every morning and evening. The kids were given the opportunity for fun and, more importantly, to learn about Christ and have the chance to receive Him as their Savior. Kat says, “The kids really love coming to camp because they get love, fed, and Bible time.” On Fridays, the kids had to say goodbye and be flown home.
John also flew throughout the week to bring staff and supplies in and out. The closest village, Russian Mission, 8 miles south of camp, was the mail pick up. From the town of Bethel, 70 miles away, John transported everything from people to food, tools, fuel, toys, pool chemicals, generators, and washers. John says, “Everything must be flown.” The reality of this remote living creates a high cost for even the necessities, since transportation costs must be passed on to the buyer. Three-year-old Abel loves bananas, but the Troyer’s could only afford to splurge on them occasionally since they cost nearly $3.00 per pound. While John spent time in the air, Kat stayed on the ground providing hands for cleaning, painting, and cooking. She was responsible for starting the vegetable plants in the greenhouse and caring for the garden throughout the summer. Little Abel helped, too.
When not flying, John helped cut the firewood needed to heat eight houses. He also welcomed the opportunity to join in the hunt for moose. At least six were needed for camp each year. The meat supply was almost always moose or salmon. Kat says, “The kids like Moose Soup.” Made from shredded moose, pasta, and vegetables, according to John, “It’s not bad. I think it’s better than white tail. Moose doesn’t taste quite as wild.” He adds, “They’re pretty docile when you hunt them, not a challenge like deer hunting. You just ride your snow machine around until you find the ones you want and shoot them.” A nice size moose can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, so they are skinned and quartered in the field, loaded onto sleds and pulled back to camp behind snow machines.
As you can imagine, there were also a few fish stories to share. John and the director of the kids’ camp, Kyle, sometimes tried ice fishing in the winter. “We’d tell the ladies to get prepared for fish tacos, but we never caught anything.” Kat says, “We ended up eating mooseburgers and fries.” One summer, Kyle’s brother came up to Alaska to fish. He hoped to catch a 50-inch pike to mount for a trophy. The pros fished all day, every day, but only caught small stuff. Then one evening Kyle’s wife Ella, her sister Maddie, and John went along for fun. In just an hour’s time, those three unskilled fishermen caught five large fish. It seems only the amateur fishermen received trophies.
When you think Alaska, do you think bears? One 2-year-old bear tried his best to join camp last year. He must not have realized camp is only for people. The bear provided major excitement by scratching on house windows, blocking the pathway to the lodge, and helping himself to the dog food. Being unafraid of the barking dogs and warning gunshots, this bear hunt turned out to be quick and easy. Perhaps the campers also liked Bear Soup?
Another bear story involves folks from John and Kat’s home church. Youth leaders Brian and Rena Mullet traveled from Ohio to Alaska with 7 youth to volunteer at the camp. John says, “They got a full dose of the Kako experience.” They connected with the kids, served as counselors, fixed an electrical issue, cut brush, painted, cleaned, and had an encounter which was a little too close for comfort. A late-night fishing trip to the creek included two boys, a surprise greeting from a big brown bear, a stuck four-wheeler, and a long walk back to camp in the dark. Knowing they were in bear country, John says, “I can only imagine the hair on the back of their necks standing up as they peered into the dark recesses of the woods.”
At times, John’s adventures included emergency medical flights. When the camp director’s wife Ella went into labor at only 7 months of pregnancy, John received a 2:00 a.m. phone call. He was the only one certified to fly in the dark. Unfortunately, the plane’s vacuum pump had to be replaced before they could take flight. Giving praise to God, John successfully installed the pump in 8-below-zero weather using the light of a headlamp, applying small nuts with only his fingertips. He didn’t drop a single nut. By 3:00 a.m., the vacuum pump had been installed and a makeshift bed was created in place of the rear seats. Ella, Kyle, and John flew 70 miles to the Bethel airport. An ambulance hurried Ella to the hospital where medication was given to slow her contractions. Then she was life-flighted to a hospital in Anchorage, the safest place for her premature baby to be born. Prayers blanketed the event and when little Lauren was born, she cried, an unusually healthy response for a baby born two months early. John says, “It was awesome! Sometimes you wonder where God is in your life.” But that night he felt God’s presence and witnessed what God can provide. According to the doctor, had they waited until morning to fly Ella to the hospital, the baby wouldn’t have survived.
One Sunday afternoon, a phone call came from Kako staffer George Landlord. His 8-year-old son Isaiah was dangerously ill and needing to get to the hospital. John made the emergency flight this time during daylight hours and poor weather conditions. John says, “We departed Kako and were forced to follow the Yukon River which was about twice as far as normal, but we couldn’t get through the hill route because of the low cloud ceiling and bad visibility.” The flight to Bethel was turbulent as John maneuvered through 30 mph headwinds. When Isaiah made it to the emergency room at last, a blocked bowel was discovered. He was life-flighted to Anchorage for surgery. If Isaiah hadn’t received prompt medical care, he would have been poisoned to death. John says, “We are again reminded of the providence of God, the remoteness of this region, and the need for airplanes where roads do not go.”
Thankfully, most of John’s flights were not of the emergency kind. Aside from all of the resources he delivered, John spent both summers delivering excited kids to and from camp. He brought Christian families in and out for weekend retreats. He also flew in ladies for the highly anticipated annual Berry Picking Retreat, where they enjoyed a fun weekend of picking blueberries, delighting in special treats, and receiving encouragement from a guest speaker.
DELIVERING THE GOOD NEWS
Sadly, many of the natives in the villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region struggle to develop their faith. Generations of drug and alcohol abuse have taken a toll on the culture and families. Last year, there were about 30 families from a dozen villages at family camp. John says, “It was a great weekend of worship and healing.” Lance Kramer, a native Eskimo from Kotzebue, 300 miles north of Kako, was the guest speaker. “He has a passion for bringing the Gospel to his people. While Kako was able to provide the venue, I believe having a native speaker who can relate to their situation and show how a Godly life is walked out, speaks volumes.”
The native peoples are hungry for the Gospel and very open to it. This past summer, during the six weeks of kid’s camp, there were more professions of faith than ever before. However, only God knows how effective the ministry is. These new Christians have difficulty growing strong in the Lord because they lack daily models of faith. They return from camp to communities filled with the temptation of drugs and alcohol. John says, “What they need is someone to hold them accountable.” In the future, Kako staff members desire to hold Bible studies in the villages and remain in contact with new believers throughout the year.
John and Kat don’t even claim to be speakers. In fact, he suggests we might find them to be painfully average. Serving in missions through piloting, they well know that not every missionary speaks the words, but all missionaries deliver the good news. They just happen to be better at flying airplanes than preaching. Their prayer team and financial supporters just happen to be better at prayer and giving, but they too participated in delivering the good news of Jesus Christ to people in a remote region of Alaska. John says, “We’ve been richly, richly blessed by people who’ve supported us. It’s very humbling to receive funds and then use them responsibly.” Kat adds, “It’s also very confirming that we’re doing what God has called us to because the necessary funding has been made available. Our church has been very gracious.” Amazingly, $70,000 in tuition was provided so that after two years of schooling and logging the necessary flight hours, the Troyer’s checkbook balance is the same as when they began. Do you get the feeling God will use this family in an extraordinary way?
READY TO MOVE
John and Kat love the Lord and are open to serve him wherever aviation is required. John says, “We feel we have that gift and want to use it for God’s glory.” They are praying about where they will go next. Although they don’t care where in the world they’ll go, they do desire to move somewhere long term. Remaining in one place will provide stability for their growing family. Not only is Abel getting bigger, but the family has recently become larger with the arrival of baby boy Julian.
If they serve with Mission Aviation Fellowship, the Troyer family could be placed in New Guinea, Indonesia, Haiti, the Congo, Mozambique, or Brazil, to name a few. John and Kat are also exploring the possibility of serving with JAARS, where providing transportation helps reach the last languages in the hardest places. Flying for JAARS means delivering Wycliffe Bible translators to remote areas of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The JAARS mission states, “Nearly 700 million people speaking roughly 5,000 languages have little-to-no Scripture in a language they can fully understand – their mother tongue, or heart language. And when they can’t understand what they read or hear, the life-transforming power of the Gospel is stopped in its tracks. We’re here to do something about that.” Since 1948, JAARS has existed to make Bible translation and language development possible – especially in the most remote and difficult places on earth.
Since returning to Ohio from Alaska, John has worked as an airplane mechanic at the Holmes County Airport. Now that his certification process is over, the Troyer family is prepared and waiting for direction from the Lord. John admits it’s difficult to wait, not knowing where he will be moving his family or landing his airplane next. This family welcomes our prayers. Please ask for God to clearly show the way and to provide everything needed for the testing period John will go through once he’s committed to full-time mission service.
John appreciates the full support of his wife and mission partner. Kat says, “Wherever God leads us, I will find something too, so my gifts will be used. I don’t know what or how. I’ll possibly lead Bible studies, teach native women to bake, or help them start their own businesses.” Her first priority is to be a wife and a mom, but she is also excited to see what she can do to further God’s Kingdom wherever they go. She says, “Everyone has a gift. Just flourish where God plants you.”
Although John considers himself average, he graciously uses his gift of flight in obedience to God. He says, “There are lost people in the world. I wish there were more missionaries to spread the Word. But, just be a missionary wherever you are. Whether you’re at work, driving down the road, or with friends and family. Spread the love of God wherever you go.” If that’s what it’s like to be average, perhaps we can all strive to be painfully average. May our unified mission be to deliver the Good News wherever we go. And like on wings of an eagle, may the saving message of the Gospel soar across the face of the earth.
Serving together in flight, John and Kat agree, “Our heart is with Jesus’ great commission.” “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Matthew 28:19-20