10 Things Flying Taught Me About Missions

by Jonathan Trotter on March 19, 2015

I love flying. It just doesn’t get old for me.

I’ve jumped the Pacific a bunch; I’ve skipped over the Atlantic a few times. I have my own license to fly small aircraft, but still, every time I fly I feel like a little kid who’s milk got spiked with espresso. Sometimes I’m afraid the other passengers are thinking, “Oh for crying out loud, this guy doesn’t get out much. He’s probably homeschooled.” They’d be partially correct, I guess.

I fight my kids for the window seat. I revel in the sensation of takeoff, the joy of punching through oppressive clouds to the open sky above. When we hit turbulence, I close my eyes (like I’m praying, ’cause that’s holy) and say a silent “Yeehaaaw!”

This article is my excuse to talk about aviation. Here’s what flying has taught me about missions. I’d love to hear from you too: what has flying taught you about missions?

 

1. Pre-flight inspections are a good idea. You don’t have to do a pre-flight inspection. You don’t have to make sure the navigational instruments work. You don’t have to make sure the tail’s still there. If you’re the pilot, you could just get in, start it up and go. And you might be fine. But, you might not.

In missions, it’s best to get some pre-field training. But you don’t have to. You might be fine without it and you might have a wonderful time. Or, you might miss the bird’s nest in the engine that’ll catch fire in a wee bit, or the water that’s in the gas tank, or the rudder that doesn’t work. Pre-flight inspections save lives. So does pre-field training.

Of course, even perfectly performed pre-flight inspections can’t erase all risk. Things might still go south, and an unforeseen mishap might still occur. But even so, there’s a reason most pilots do a pre-flight inspection and most organizations encourage pre-field training.

I should note here that if you’re in Southeast Asia, the bird’s nest might not be in the engine. It might be in the free canned beverage from the gas station. I was totally not expecting that.

 

f1ALO

2. Communication matters. In most small airports in America, radio communication is not required. That is, you don’t have to talk with anyone on the radio. You don’t even have to have a radio in the plane. But radio communication is strongly recommended.

Most pilots “self-report” their location and their intention, especially when operating close to an airport. They might say something like, “Cessna 63279, six miles east of the airport at 2,500 feet, inbound for landing on runway 18, planning to enter a left downwind.” It’s really cool how this works, ‘cause if everyone self-reports, all the pilots in the vicinity have a general idea of who’s where and what they’re planning to do.

Not talking is scary. One day I was in the pattern with several other aircraft, and we all knew where the other planes were, when a new plane cut right in front of me, preparing to land. He hadn’t communicated anything, and although he wasn’t breaking any rules, he wasn’t making anything safer. Nor was he making any friends.

In missions, it’s great when folks talk to each other. If no one else is there, fine, do your own thing, but still, flying solo without at least a few people aware of what you’re up to is dangerous.

Not to mix analogies or anything, but you might think you’re a lone wolf, taking care of yourself and your ministry, when in reality you might just be a lone wildebeest, separated from the herd, ready to provide a lion his lunch. (Yes, I realize that I’ve used the word wildebeest in a prior post. I like the animal. I want one.)

If there are other workers on the field already, talk with them. Where are they? What are they doing? What’s working? What’s not? You’re probably not the only person in the sky, so don’t act like it. Communicate. Failing to communicate endangers everyone.

 

3. One-uppers happen. If you fly a lot, you’ve got travel stories. Great and funny and crazy stories, like that one time when all your flights were on time, no one threw up, and everyone arrived fully rested and smiling. With perfect hair. Be careful though, ‘cause it’s hard to tell a travel story without someone needing to one-up it with a story of their own.

Do I really have to explain how this is like missions? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Do yourself a favor and watch this four-minute clip by comedian Brian Regan. His phrases “me monster,” “lunar rover,” and “two wisdom tooth tale” have found their way into our family vernacular. This sketch is part of our family culture now; perhaps it could become part of yours too.

 

4. Landing is one of the most dangerous parts of flying. Taking off requires little skill. Basically, you just point the plane in the right direction and push “GO!” Landing, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. There’s a lot more stuff that can go sideways. Landing safely requires planning, careful implementation, and a soft touch.

It’s sort of like landing on “the field” and then landing back “home.” Both landings carry certain risks and should be approached and planned for with care.

Soft landings are the best, so find kind and good-hearted people. Hang out with them. Cry with them. And when you see the next plane coming in for a landing (whether abroad or in your passport country), do whatever you can to provide a soft landing.

 

5. Landing at a place is VERY different than flying over it. I’ve flown over a lot of countries that I’ve never been to. I was in their airspace, but I wasn’t really there. It’s different, you know. From way up high, the Rocky Mountains aren’t all that majestic, the Grand Canyon’s not that big, Siberia’s not too cold, and the Pacific Ocean is pretty manageable. But stop and stay a while, and things will shift.

Short-term workers need to remember this. Passing through a nation, tasting their foods, and hugging their kids is not the same as staying. I’m not saying it doesn’t have value, but short-termers must remember that being in a place for a week or even a month is sort of like performing a low-altitude flyover. You can take some cool pictures, but you can’t really understand what it’s like to live there.

That being said, long-termers can benefit from the unique vantage point of our short-term brothers and sisters. Long-termers can get bogged down in minutia and forget to come up for air from time to time. Hanging out with short-termers can reinvigorate and re-inspire. And remind.

I guess the main thing I’m saying is this: be aware of your altitude. If you’re just flying over, know what it is that you don’t know. And ask questions.

If you’ve been somewhere a long time, ask the short-termers to describe what things look like from their vantage point. Ask them about where they came from and where they’re going. The relationship can (and should) be very symbiotic.

 

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

6. Most (but not all) obstacles are on the map. So look at it. Radio towers, mountains, restricted airspace, etc., they’re all on the map. Pay attention. Learn from others. Learn the lay of the land.

Missionaries, learn from the old people (nationals and expats alike). They have experience that you need, and they’ve already paid for it! Remember, nothing is new under the sun. Most experienced people are happy to share their thoughts and opinions with interested parties and point out obstacles and hazards. No one likes to see a plane (or a missionary) crash and burn.

 

7. Don’t judge another passenger’s anxiety. On the same flight, excited travelers who’ve planned for and dreamed of the trip for years may be sitting right next to people who are absolutely dreading what awaits them on the tarmac. One traveler may be starting a grand adventure, while another deals with tremendous loss and many endings. A traveler’s anxiety isn’t necessarily correlated to the smoothness of the flight. Don’t judge. You don’t know the stories.

In missions, one person might really struggle with something that another person finds perfectly sublime. What stresses one might excite another. Be careful in the judging, because you just don’t know their story.

Stories are funky things, bleeding through pages of a life. When you see a person stressed or anxious, give them the benefit of the doubt; you don’t know what they left behind, and you don’t know what’s in store for them upon arrival. And often, neither do they.

 

8. The toilets are different. And they sometimes require, um, how shall we say, skill. And planning. Especially with small children.

 

9. You don’t always get to choose your travel buddies. Sometimes you get to choose whom you sit next to (and what they smell like), other times, not so much. If you can’t change it, just be glad you packed earplugs and smelling salts. And sedatives.

Sometimes you can choose where you sit, and whom you sit next to. If that’s the case, be bold. Choose. Sometimes things change en route, and you may need to ask to move seats. If you need to, and you can, do it. There’s nothing noble or especially holy about staying in a difficult situation that isn’t necessary.

 

10. Sometimes you lose stuff. While it’s true that you gain things by flying, you also lose stuff. Like luggage, or your temper, or your ability to answer simple questions such as “What day is it?” “What country am I in?” or “Whose kid is that?” Flying messes with your circadian rhythm, and if you’re blessed to have other forms of rhythm, flying will mess with those too. You lose all sorts of stuff when you fly; some of the stuff you get back, but some of it stays lost forever. Just.Like.Missions.

Maybe it’s innocence.

Or optimism.

Or the belief that this will be easy.

You might show up thinking that all foreign workers are pretty much perfect Christians, as if William Carey and Elisabeth Elliot had a bunch of children and named them all “Missionary.” Yeah, that assumption might get destroyed.

Most likely, you’ll lose a bit of ignorance, forever changing how you watch world news.

But loss isn’t the end of the story; God is, and He remains the Great Healer and Restorer. He is the Father who runs, shouting “We must celebrate! For what was once lost has now been found.” He is the God who sees what’s been lost, and cares. He is the God who is here. And there.

May the peace of God rest on His people.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!

If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.

If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.

I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day.

Darkness and light are the same to you.

Psalm 139:7-12

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of sixteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41
  • Melinda Todd

    Thank you for sharing. How on earth do people pay for the missions training? Is that part of raising your support? There’s NO way we’d ever be able to afford those kinds of fees…

    • Hey there, Melinda! I’m not sure how everyone pays for pre-field training, but it seems pretty common for that money to be raised as “one time start up costs.”

  • Chad Mankins

    Nice article. Though not a pilot myself, a Cessna 206 is our normal commute (we work among a remote people group) and could relate to much of what you said about both flying and missions in general. You did about great job communicating these thoughts. We could add more to this list, methinks. Like the importance of keeping track of one’s heading…

    • Yeah, that one would preach too! : ) Thanks for stopping by, Chad!

  • Anisha Hopkinson

    Love it! How about: Missions like flying is usually only glamorous in the pictures.

    I once had someone tell me they wanted to be a helicopter pilot so they could fly movie stars. I told them they’d more likely fly big, sweaty engineers out to oil rigs (I know, I’m a dream crusher).

    And, I’ve been told we are “heroes of the faith” for being missionaries. Nice, but I’m all “You’re kidding, right? Because right now I’m not even sure I like my neighbors.”

    Then there is always the: I’ve never puked so much as when I’ve either been in the air or on the mission field.

    • Ha! The puking one is so funny, and I can completely relate! It’s gotten to the point where I feel I can’t say I’ve truly experienced someplace unless I’ve gotten sick there.

    • “Dream crusher” or “Reality pusher.” Hard to tell the difference sometimes. : ) Thanks for the comment, Anisha!

  • BongoloPilot

    As a missionary pilot serving in Africa, I really enjoyed your post, Jonathan. May the peace of our Lord rest on you and your family as well.

    • Thanks! And may the tailwinds be ever in your favor. Unless you’re landing on a short runway, I guess. : )

  • Lisa Larson

    Thanks Johathon. Enjoyed this! My husband is a pilot and we are headed to Indonesia this summer. These insights help us to go with less unrealistic expectations we hope!

    • Oh, wow, that’s awesome, Lisa! So glad this was an encouragement. May the Father continue to lead you and be with you in your upcoming transitions.

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Lisa you are heading to my neck of the woods! We’re on the island of Papua. Indonesia is a wonderful place to live!

      • Lisa Larson

        Thanks, Anisha. That is really encouraging. After a year of language school we are headed to Papua too! We are so looking forward to it!

  • Ann Coster

    A fun read Jonathan! Such great analogies and so apt for people who get on planes more than ever. Thanks for the Brian Regan clip – and the new phrases I hope to “own” and use. But thanks mostly for the warning to watch for free canned beverages at gas stations! Yikes!

    • Thanks, Ann! Indeed, I prefer it when they give me free Pepsi. : ) And I’m so glad you enjoyed that Brian Regan clip! Fun stuff…

  • Wendy

    Thanks Jonathon. I’ve posted a link to this on my blog, adding a small comment to each of your ten points. Appreciate the insights. http://mmuser.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/flying-and-mission.html

  • Anna Wegner

    Great article. 🙂 As a passenger, not a pilot, I would say that the “pre-flight” prep is important from a passenger standpoint, too. You can’t just show up and expect to get on a plane without your tickets and ID. And you’ll be happier if you pack the things that you need or make you comfortable, but leave the excess baggage that you don’t really need.

  • Maggi

    Thank you for another good read! I’ve started calling airplanes “time machines”, ’cause you get on in one world and get out in another. 🙂

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