January 21, 2016

Mission Pilot Carries on Father’s Legacy With Remarkable Flight

, 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 10,150-mile (16,330-kilometer) 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 had flown 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, which Roberts landed at the headquarters of Adventist Aviation Indonesia last month, will be used for mission outreach in the 10/40 window of southeast Asia.

How the Flight Worked

In order to accomplish such a long trip, Roberts said he relied on much prayer, planning, and a few practical guidelines. He sought to fly during daylight hours when possible. Roberts also traveled with extra fuel and emergency equipment such as a life raft, a life jacket, and other survival gear. He used a tracking device so his family and others could follow him online. In the event that he encountered a major problem, he carried a special, satellite-linked SOS button that he could press.

For part of the journey, friend and pilot Dwayne Harris of the Philippine Adventist Medical Aviation Services served as co-pilot.

The single-engine Pilatus PC-6 Porter was not chosen for its ability to cover long distances quickly but rather for its skill at making short field take-offs and landings with a relatively heavy load. While these factors make it a great bush plane for remote areas, the aircraft has a cruising speed of just about 120 knots (around 200 kilometers) per hour.

The flight allowed Roberts to become the first known Adventist mission pilot to fly around the world longitudinally in small aircraft, a feat that he believes was only accomplished with God’s guidance and protection.

Watch Gary Roberts fly an ill elephant in Chad

Acquiring the Plane

Obstacles always seem to accompany trips of this magnitude, and Roberts and Harris faced several before they even began. But the troubles turned into miracles that underscored God’s blessings, said Roberts' wife, Wendy.

“All along the way things have been harder and taken longer than it seems they should have, but we have the assurance that God was working on our behalf,” she said. “We’ve seen Him in action!”

Gary and Wendy Roberts moved to Indonesia after the death of Bob Roberts to continue his work with Adventist Aviation Indonesia. The elder Roberts and one passenger died on April 9, 2014, when the Quest Kodiak plane that 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.

In securing the new mission plane, the first potential problem surfaced when Gary Roberts carried out an initial inspection of the aircraft in Vienna and found corrosion, or rust, 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 Wendy Roberts, who lives with her husband 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.

Trip Beset by Potential Delays

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, and fly out of Vienna on November 19, a Thursday.

Harris, meanwhile, faced difficultly in Austria. His Nov. 17 departure from Manila coincided with a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a major free trade forum for 21 Pacific Rim countries, which was held in the city that week. The international event snarled road traffic and forced the cancellation or rescheduling of many flights.

Aware of the potential problems, Harris left his home four hours early in hope that he would reach the Manila airport on time. He had nearly reached the airport when his road was suddenly closed and traffic was told to take a detour. Harris stopped his taxi, paid his fare, and crossed six lanes of traffic to access the airport road and make his flight.

After takeoff, he settled back to relax. But not for long. Two hours into the flight, a passenger suffered a stroke, causing the plane to be rerouted to Mumbai, India. The passengers were stranded for five hours. During this time, Harris alerted Roberts that he would not make it to Vienna as planned. The two pilots reworked their schedule and agreed to meet instead in Athens, Greece.

The next challenge was getting Harris to Athens. After the logistical nightmare of arranging a new three-stop itinerary and then securing lodging at the Adventist Church’s Greek Mission headquarters, Harris finally arrived in Athens on Nov. 20.

But he was unable to access his e-mail inbox to receive directions to his lodging. He ended up taking a taxi downtown and finding a hotel where he could use the Internet. Once online, he learned that Roberts had been delayed because of visa problems and would not arrive for two more days. So Harris spent the next day, Sabbath, worshipping with believers at an Adventist international church.

Meanwhile, Roberts was facing his own challenges. Normally, visas are not an issue for pilots who plan to stay in a country for three days or less. But some countries still require them, and Roberts had a question about India, one of his confirmed stops on the itinerary.

After several challenges acquiring the visa, Roberts eventually obtained one, but by that time it was 11:30 a.m. Nov. 20, and he had missed a day of flying time.

Roberts could have spent Sabbath in Vienna, but a cold front with accompanying bad weather was moving into the area. Concerned that he might be grounded in Vienna for days, he flew three hours to Croatia and spent the rest of the day and Sabbath there.

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 only valid for a certain time period, and any unexpected delay could require him to submit a new application.

Up, Up, and Away

On Nov. 22, a Sunday, Roberts headed from Croatia to Greece to pick up Harris, his co-pilot. He fought strong winds along the way, and the wind was so strong upon landing in Athens that he could barely taxi the plane.

He had hoped to meet Harris and fly on to Egypt that day. But the wind prevented them from going anywhere.

Early the next morning, Nov. 23, Roberts and Harris flew from Athens 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, Nov. 24, the pilots encountered an unexpected icy adventure as they flew from Egypt to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The flight path took them over Saudi Arabia.

“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. It got fairly rough.”

The plane started picking up dangerous ice as it cruised at 10,000 feet (3,050 meters). The pilots requested and received permission to change their route and descend to about 9,000 feet.

“It was nice at that point to have two pilots to share the load,” Harris said.

The Pilatus PC-6 Porter does not have autopilot, so the pilot in command must focus constantly to prevent the plane from drifting off-course.

But even with two pilots, the bad weather and resulting diversion off the intended flight plan caused the plane to land several hours after sunset.

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, on Sunday, Nov. 29. But he had trouble gaining access to the aircraft that day. In addition to refueling and regular safety checks, he needed to repair an antenna that had broken during the ice storm over Saudi Arabia. Since he wasn’t able to do any of that on Sunday, he had to accomplish all this in the few hours before his planned departure the next morning. This change in schedule cut into the sleep that he needed before embarking on the now-solo segment of the trip.

From Abu Dhabi, 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, Borneo, and then to several stops in Indonesia before reaching the Adventist Aviation Indonesia headquarters on Tuesday, Dec. 8.

Join pilot Gary Roberts in the cockpit for the last 10 minutes of the 80-hour flight as he approaches Adventist Aviation International headquarters in Doyo Baru Sentani, Papua, Indonesia, on Dec. 8. 

What the Trip Means

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, church leaders said. 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.

“Many people don’t realize that there are still areas of the world that are only accessible by aircraft,” said Gary Roberts. “Many people still live in villages with little or no access to health care, education, or other basic necessities of life. The airplane is not only a huge time saver, but a necessity to help meet the needs of the people as the airplane can make a trip in a matter of hours that would take days, weeks, or months to reach by land.”

Gary and Wendy Roberts see their work as multi-faceted — but with the underlying purpose of sharing Jesus.

“In looking around in the world, I have no doubt that the devil is angry because he knows his time is short,” Wendy Roberts said. “We are really feeling this in Papua, and despite having the gospel here for many years, the devil still has a strong hold. But God’s Spirit is also working here, and people are searching for light.”

She said she and her husband hoped that the newly delivered plane would carry the light of Jesus far and wide.

“We pray that many will be saved for eternity because of this tool God has given us to reach those in remote places,” she said.

For more information about the work of Adventist Aviation International, watch this 5-minute video about the death of mission pilot Bob Roberts and the work of his son, Gary Roberts, who has taken his place. (Adventist Mission)

Contact Gary Roberts at [email protected].