By Heidi Thulin
On Field Media
An AIM AIR aircraft like this Caravan rarely travels more than 900 miles in a single day, so in order for it to fly nearly 2,000 miles in one takeoff, Jim and his fellow pilot, Brian Stoltzfus, needed to pack extra survival equipment, wear dry suits during the entirety of the Atlantic flight, and carry two 200-gallon fuel tanks behind their seats that continuously fed jet fuel into the wings. “I wasn’t particularly nervous about anything going terribly wrong,” Jim assures me. “Statistically, it was not any different than any of my flights in Africa. And I knew there were lots of people praying about [our journey]. That alone gave me a lot of comfort.”
Indeed, people had been praying about this trip and for this airplane for a long time—since 2012 to be exact. One of the most invested people in the fundraising efforts for the Caravan was Chief Pilot and SIM missionary, Nate Killoren. When Nate was originally coming out to serve, he and an airplane mechanic planned to move to South Sudan, build an airstrip, and help support the country’s rebuilding effort. In 2006, however, AIM AIR leadership wisely advised SIM to partner with them instead. “There’s a lot involved in running an aviation program,” Nate says. “[They suggested we] work together rather than have me start something from scratch. I’m so glad we did that!”
That partnership is still strong today. In fact, this new Caravan is owned by SIM but operated and maintained by AIM AIR. “One of the beauties of AIM AIR is that we are…serving many other organizations,” Jim says. “SIM is able to fly their airplane cheaper by sharing it with other mission organizations. It would also be significantly more expensive for our own AIM missionaries to use these airplanes if we exclusively flew for AIM. Plus, other people who could never own [an airplane] benefit from the partnership as well.”
Such partnerships also help in terms of how mission organizations see each other. “SIM sees us as family,” Jim says, “because we’re flying them in their own airplane.”
Nate agrees. “AIM AIR has really been the backbone for all of SIM’s ministries in South Sudan.” Since 2008, SIM has been one of AIM AIR’s biggest customers, especially since AIM AIR has two other airbases—one in Lokichogio, Kenya and the other in Arua, Uganda—that make access to South Sudan and other Central African airstrips much easier. “AIM AIR is good at being an option where there are no options,” Nate continues. “We go as far as we can by commercial aircraft or by road and then put a base there.”
In order to adequately staff the airbases and keep all the planes in top working order, they needed a third Caravan, a turbine-powered aircraft with a bigger engine that could takeoff in a shorter distance and climb out faster on the sometimes short, often dirt (or mud) airstrips. The engine also does not require the expensive and highly-refined Avgas fuel AIM AIR’s piston aircraft relied on. Avgas is especially rare in Africa and needs to be trucked into the more remote airstrips, which is proving to be an unsustainable solution. AIM AIR now has only three Avgas-burning airplanes where it used to have seven. Adding more turbine aircraft to the fleet puts the aviation ministry on much stronger footing.
A Little Green DotLater that afternoon, Jim takes me down to the hangar floor and lets me climb into the pilot’s seat. Traditionally, AIM AIR has not been on the cutting-edge of equipment, but these enhancements on the instrument panel are state-of-the-art. What I see before me is called a “glass cockpit.” Instead of the six round dials of yesteryear, four, small glowing computer screens show the pilot, among many other things, a map of the terrain below him and the location of other nearby aircraft. Before, to avoid other aircraft in flight, a pilot regularly reported his location and altitude on a radio frequency and listened for where other pilots were headed. Now, being able to see, at a glance, the proximity of air traffic is a tremendous safety enhancement.
The plane also has a satellite-tracking device that is accessible via the Internet and an iPhone app. In the past, every half hour, the hangar received a sometimes-garbled transmission from the pilot stating his location. “If we were to lose a plane,” Nate admits, “we’d have a massive area of land to cover.” Now, all six of AIM AIR’s airplanes can be accounted for at all times.
Jim’s ferry flight was one of the first opportunities where AIM AIR used this satellite-tracking technology. During the eight days Jim was en-route, dozens of people around the world watched his little green dot progress from Ohio to Canada, across the Atlantic to Ireland, over the Mediterranean to Egypt, and then down the African continent.
Jim directs my attention to the three satellite buttons on the top of the instrument panel. “[Before takeoff,] I told some friends and family that when I reached the halfway point [across the Atlantic], I was going to push a button that would change the color of the tracking dot to blue. When you see that change, you’ll know that…we’re praising God for every one of you who is praying for us. So I did it.” He points to the blue “Watch” button in the middle, the one that sends out additional tracking notices, and smiles. “Unfortunately, I should have told more people my plan, because there were some people who were really worried that something had gone really wrong!”
Adding to the stress of those on the ground, shortly after Jim pushed the “Watch” button, the Caravan lost radio contact. “We got a warning that our cooling fan had failed on the radio and that [it] was running at a higher temperature than it should,” Jim explains. “We looked around our cramped cockpit for something to use to cool it down. Brian found a couple file folders, rolled them into long tubes, and duct taped them (always travel with duct tape!). We taped the tubes onto the overhead vents and directed the airflow onto the overheating radio. Up at 15,000 feet, the outside temperature was 15 degrees below zero. For the next three days, we didn’t have any problems with the radio, as long as those tubes were blowing air on it!”
Besides those two hiccups and a flat tire that left them stranded in Malta for three days, the journey was uneventful and successful. At 6:15 pm on March 19th, eight days and over 8,000 miles after they’d left Ohio, the pilots, mechanics, and personnel of AIM AIR welcomed an exhausted Jim and the Cessna Caravan N685KS into the hangar. “It was really great to see friendly faces as I was taxiing in,” Jim recalls. “I felt honored to be the one to land here at Wilson Airfield and pull up to the AIM AIR hangar in this plane.”
The Blessing of an Empty HangarAfter the plane’s arrival in Nairobi, it took a month to complete registration paperwork and to give it a maintenance tune-up, including reattaching the radio cooling system plug that had wiggled loose. “It was nice to know the radio failure was just something simple,” Jim says with a smile.
With the addition of this newly upgraded plane, now two of AIM AIR’s three Caravans are identical, and the ministry is well on its way toward standardization of the fleet. “All of the pilots fly all of the planes,” Nate explains. “When all of the airplanes are flown the same way and use the same instruments, it improves the safety and security of the flight team.”
AIM AIR gauges how much their planes are serving missionaries and mission agencies by how little they see their aircraft in the hangar. In the Caravan’s first month of operation, it logged over 11,000 miles (60 flight hours), providing supplies to dozens of missionaries and pastors and conducting five medical evacuations. “It’s a great encouragement to everybody out here,” Jim tells me. “You don’t want to spend a million plus dollars on a plane, and then see it sitting as a very pretty appendage in the hangar.”
If these first four weeks of N685KS’s service are any indication, I suspect this airplane has years of vital mission work ahead of it.