by Heidi Thulin    (contributions from Jerry Hurd) 

Sunlight slowly spilled over the horizon as Captain Denny Dyvig, a long-time pilot with AIM Air, prepared the Cessna 206 for her final flight from Nairobi, Kenya. Her dented aluminum had seen many years of affliction from gravel runways, and the plastic anti-abrasion tape did little to hide it. This plane, 5Y-SIL, a 1974 model, was the oldest 206 in AIM AIR’s fleet. She was a gift straight from the Cessna factory paid for by many generous people in Switzerland. With broad blue stripes and the words “Friendship of Switzerland” painted on her nose, she left her first assignment in Cameroon and, in 1980, joined a newer, smaller program in Juba, Sudan.

Also in 1980, Denny was finishing an exhaustive evaluation and orientation at the JAARS center in Waxhaw, North Carolina, where he was preparing for service as a mission pilot in Juba. It was to fly this particular plane that Denny was coming out to Africa. “I enjoy flying,” he said, “and I see flying as a part of the ministry; it’s the ‘go’ part of the Great Commission. ‘Go.’ That means move, that means travel, that means get out there somewhere. This airplane is what did that, and I was there to be the driver for the ‘go’ of the Great Commission.”

Denny began flying 5Y-SIL soon after arriving in Sudan, bringing missionaries and supplies to remote villages and children to boarding school. Juba was an isolated, hot, and dusty city, and since a hangar had not yet been built, there were several occasions when Denny repaired and inspected the airplane while she sat under nothing but the scorching sun. The city was oftentimes referred to as the largest village in Africa, because it had very few paved roads and a population of nearly one hundred thousand people. Since 5Y-SIL was the only airplane based in southern Sudan and ground transportation in that area of the world was so difficult, she was the busiest airplane of the JAARS fleet worldwide—it was not uncommon for her to fly one hundred hours in a month. But she always flew faithfully.

The more Denny navigated across the vast flat land below, the more he understood why the JAARS instructors were extra tough on him during his orientation. They knew he would be operating mainly on his own in a demanding program with little more than a compass and featureless maps to guide him. In the more serious situations, however, he would need to rely solely on the grace of God.

A Close Call

Civil war remained almost a constant threat in Sudan’s post-colonial history, and Denny was no stranger to the dangers. “Because of the war,” Denny recalled, “the government had a policy that when you would take off [from a town called Wau], you’d have to circle over the airstrip, over the town, and climb and climb, to 10,000 feet, before the government would allow you to cross the country.” Two days before Denny was slated to depart from that airstrip, he heard about a rebel attack on a Unicef airplane, a plane very similar to his own. The missile hit the tail of the plane but, luckily, did not explode.

Tensions were still high on the day of his departure, but after a lot of nervous prayer, Denny began that long, slow climb from Wau. He spiraled over the town, all the time expecting to see a missile coming his way. Suddenly, a voice came over the common traffic advisory frequency: “Aircraft circling Wau, where are you going?”

Denny knew that Wau’s control tower did not have a working radio and was reluctant to give out any information. He remained silent. The voice questioned him again.

“Station calling,” Denny answered. “Identify yourself.”

The voice laughed. “You want me to identify myself? First, confirm your destination.”

“I will not state my destination until you state who you are!”

Except for Denny’s beating heart, silence followed again. Several minutes later, the voice said, “OK, have a nice day.”

When Denny returned to Juba, officials informed him that the voice was likely a member of the rebel army and that he was lucky he hadn’t been shot down. Denny immediately knew he had experienced firsthand the protection and faithfulness of God. And it wasn’t the only time.

Family Matters

Denny and his wife, Sue, both grew up in the farmlands of Iowa, and a month before they started college at Moody Bible Institute, they were married. Both of them were passionate about missions work, and though they planned to have children, they chose to wait until they began their first overseas assignment before they started a family. Once they’d settled into a home in Juba, however, they felt God impressing a new desire upon them. The verse from Matthew 19:29 stood out: And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much. 

“We had left everything on the list,” Denny explained. “Not all missionaries leave a farm, but we had even left a farm. So everything on the list, we had left. Except for children.” Denny and Sue prayed about and discussed this new path tirelessly and decided to follow God’s new leading and leave the dream of having children behind. “In those days,” he said, emotion swelling in his voice, “we never thought about the second half of that verse: for my sake will receive a hundred times as much. But now, there are roughly eighty Africans who call us Mom and Dad. We’re getting close to that one hundred mark. And it was that airplane, flying that airplane, that brought us to South Sudan.” And many young Sudanese to their “family.”

A Man and His Airplane

Because of Sudan’s civil war, Denny and his airplane moved around to several places before settling in Nairobi, Kenya with AIM AIR in 1988, and they have both served faithfully in their roles for twenty-five years. This year, Denny’s retirement is fast approaching and 5Y-SIL has received a new assignment with a different mission organization in Tanzania.

Denny’s special attachment to that plane was no secret to the other pilots, and they worked together to make it possible for Denny to be her pilot on her last flight with AIM AIR. On that December morning, they gathered around Captain Denny and 5Y-SIL, pronouncing a blessing on their last flight together.

As Denny settled into his seat, he brushed his hand along the contoured control yoke and listened to her rumbling engine. 5Y-SIL was more than a machine. She was the reason Denny had fallen in love with Africa. She was the tool that delivered missionaries to remote places all over the continent. And she was the gift that taught Denny about God’s faithfulness.

Denny turned the plane down the runway centerline, waited for his cue from the control tower, and then throttled forward in the way he knew so well. She hummed beneath him as her wheels lifted from the ground, and Denny smiled. Dodoma, Tanzania waited for them, and the brilliant sunshine welcomed them into the sky.