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The Bush Pilot

Dave and Marilee Voetmann

Rarely do we hear of a lifestyle as committed, dramatic and fascinating as that of Dave and Marilee Voetmann, who worked with the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) for 42 years, 25 of them living in Africa. They began their work in 1964 when Dave, a bush pilot, started flying humanitarian missions throughout Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) while Marilee managed radio communications and scheduled flights for the pilots – and raised and educated the couple’s four children.

In 1967, Dave was one of the first missionary pilots to reenter the Congo after years of civil war had claimed the lives of more than 200 missionaries. By 1983 he had logged more than 10,000 flight hours transporting doctors and patients and delivering hundreds of tons of food and medical supplies throughout Rhodesia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mali, Angola, Kenya and the Congo.

Following decades of work in Africa, Dave, back in the U.S., recognized the need for an affordable, new “bush” airplane to sustain this kind of missionary work. As a result, he created a new company, Quest Aircraft, which builds planes designed to handle unforgiving climates and terrains to safely deliver passengers and goods to the most remote areas around the globe. The new plane is named Kodiak for the remote island in Alaska and the power of its Kodiak bears.

Here is their story.

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First, tell me how the two of you met and started in this work.

Marilee: We met at King’s Garden (CRISTA) High School in Seattle. We had our first date the last week of school in 1954 and that was it. We got married three years later after completing our studies at Prairie Bible Institute near Calgary, Alberta. We then decided we would like to go overseas to do missionary work.

Dave
: We joined Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). It’s a non-denominational, non-sectarian Christian Mission. Over 100 mission organizations fly their own airplanes overseas providing aid, of which MAF is the largest. Developing nations have very little adequate transportation. It’s either jungle trails, rivers or if you are lucky, by Land Rover. If there are wars or famines, it is difficult to travel, so aviation is crucial and essential.

What did it take to become a bush pilot?

Dave: Mission pilots have a lot of different skills, and you must have a significant amount of experience. You have to be an experienced commercial pilot and a licensed aircraft mechanic because when you are in the jungles, you have to be able to fly and repair your own airplane. If you are 500 miles from home and something goes wrong, you have to be able to fix it yourself.

You’re not just a missionary, but also a fundraiser because you must raise your own support. And then you have to learn a foreign language, or two or three. We learned both Shona and Swahili. We just picked up the languages while living there.

What were the conditions like?

Dave: We built our own houses using a metal roof, concrete floors and homemade brick. In Congo, you can’t get cement. We made our own brick out of anthills which grow 10 - 15 feet high and are made of clay. We also built our hangars and many air strips.

You’re out across the jungle day after day in isolated situations and sometimes war zones. In Congo, we were 500 miles from Nairobi, our nearest gas station or grocery store.

People don’t realize that Congo is half the size of the U.S. Across the middle of it are 700 miles of impenetrable equatorial jungle and virtually no roads. So MAF bought eight Cessna 185 planes, and put pilots and planes all across Congo. It was 700 miles to the next closest pilot—these are long distances.

And you brought your four children with you?

Dave: Yes, two of them were born in Africa. In fact, when we first started out, Marilee was pregnant. Our first daughter was born six days after we arrived in Rhodesia. We cut that one a little bit close.

Marilee
: That was in the mid ‘60s. I delivered Diane in a local hospital, and I remember the doctor wore an orange butcher’s apron and I could hardly understand his strong British accent.

Dave
: Our second five-year tour of duty was to the Congo. You guessed it… Marilee was pregnant again with our youngest son, who was born six weeks after we arrived. At least we were improving, but there was no doctor, oxygen or intensive care available, and a midwife delivered the baby.

All four of our children lived with us. Marilee home schooled them while they were young, and then we sent them to mission boarding schools when they were older.

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What made you choose this vocation?

Dave: You need to invest your lives where the biggest need is. There is little to no medical aid in developing nations, so I’ve done tons of medical flights. I built many of the airstrips, and for 10 years in Rhodesia, I went out every other week to live in primitive villages where they had never had any contact with the outside world. We built 28 airstrips, and I took a doctor with me. Through our work, we brought flying doctor service, ethics, morals and humanitarian aid to thousands of people. I’ve given thousands of injections, hauled hundreds of tons of grain and helped with other humanitarian aid. 

There are cultures around the world where they have a word for God, but their animistic gods are demonic spirits. They are afraid of ancestral spirits. They live in terror and fear and superstition, which really puts them in terrible bondage and creates genocide. 

We found great results in telling them there is a better way. I’ve seen tribes come together and burn all their fetishes and become friends with God and with each other. At times, we kept thousands of people alive and it was not easy living. I lost 30 pounds my first few months in the deserts of Mali, West Africa –flying in and out of Timbuktu.

I flew doctors out into villages with only grass root huts. We would put up a sheet so bat manure and bugs wouldn’t fall out of the ceiling, and I’d hold a flashlight so they would have some light while doing surgery. These doctors are amazing and heroic.

How did it work day to day?

Dave: A remote mission station would call and say, “I have a woman in labor, and she needs a C-section,” so I’d fly the doctor out there and he’d do a C-section.

Or they’d call and say, “I have three people with malaria, and we can’t treat them,” so I’d pick them up and fly them to our mission hospital. When I picked them up, their families were often crying the death-wail because they were sure they’d never see this person again. Three weeks later I’d fly them back, and they’d jump out of the airplane healthy. These experiences supplied a steady source of gifted jungle fruits of all sorts….and amazing friendships. 

What are the challenges of being a bush pilot?

Dave: As I said, when you’re all alone 700 miles away from the closest airplane, you have to be able to fly and fix your airplane on your own. We maintained them and built our own airstrips. Most of them are short, narrow and muddy. It is a true bush pilot situation—very rugged, remote and isolated. That was before the days of GPS, so you’re flying out across solid jungle every day with few landmarks. Often, you’re 700 miles across solid jungle, and if you go down there is no way to walk out of there.

Marilee
: Every 15 minutes Dave would call me from the airplane radio and tell me, “I’m at Alpha Echo One Three.” Then the next time it’s, “Alpha Echo One Four.” That way I could follow him on a map. If he went down, the likelihood he would be found within 30 to 50 miles was better. He would always say “X-ray” if he wasn’t sure where he was or if the weather was bad. “Alpha Delta Three Four X-ray.” The mission stations listening in never knew what that meant.

Dave
: Without Marilee, we couldn’t have done all this. She scheduled all the flights. When the missions would call in asking for medical emergency flights, they would call in to her and say, “We have a woman that just came in an oxcart with a baby half delivered. Does Dave have time to pick her up and take her to a hospital?”

Marilee did all that coordinating.

What were some of the dangers?

Dave: One time I got lost over the Sudan border. It was steady overcast, and I chose to fly above the clouds. It was dead reckoning. I hoped to drop down and find the airstrip in Congo. The jungle has huge trees 5 feet through the middle and averaging 180 feet tall. That makes it dangerous because if you go down, you’ll never reach the ground. Your airplane will get stuck in trees. We carried ropes to get down.

I couldn’t find this airstrip. I had two missionary women on board. One was a teacher and one was a nurse. I decided to land on an airstrip I found. The thought flashed through my mind, “I wonder if this is Sudan.” I called Marilee and said, “I’m on the ground. I’m safe, but there are some guys coming at us with guns from around the tree, so stand by.” She didn’t hear from me again for two weeks.

I had landed in Sudan instead of Congo. I was arrested for crossing the border. They were in the middle of a 40-year civil war. These were Sudanese soldiers from the north, and they were fighting the south.

They roughed us up quite a bit. They put us in a convoy and drove us to their main center at Juba, then flew us 1000 miles to the north where we were under house arrest for a couple weeks. Ultimately, our captor negotiated for us to get back to the airplane, which got us into another ambush along the one-lane muddy jungle road.

When I called Marilee from the airplanes radio that first night to let her know where I was, all the other missionaries had their radios on and heard me say I was arrested in South Sudan, so they knew I was in trouble. They contacted the U.S. ambassador. And that was quite a story… for another time.

Dr. Becker, who ran our mission hospital, came up every day and checked on Marilee. When Marilee told him she hadn’t heard from me, somehow it got around the African community. When I finally made it home, there were thousands of people there to welcome me.

Those next two weeks, I flew 50 hours. I was trying to get caught up because I had left people stranded all across the jungle for two weeks. Every place I stopped people came out and said, “You know we had prayer meetings 24 hours a day for you.” It showed the gratitude of the people.

You never realized what a little red airplane meant to those people – to have access to a hospital or a doctor.

I also was forced to land twice in Uganda while heading for Nairobi, 500 miles away. Idi Amin had come into power, and they harassed us. They would get on the radio and say, “You do not have over-flight clearance today.” I’d say, “Yes I do. I have the paperwork.” And they would say, “That’s no good. You must land.” They had MiG planes that could shoot us down.

I understand you met with Idi Amin in person to address the clearance problem.

Dave: Yes. One time I was stuck in Nairobi, and I couldn’t get home. When Jomo Kenyatta, the prime minister and president of Kenya died, I thought Idi Amin would come to the funeral, and he did. I went to the hotel where he was staying and said I’d like to have a meeting with him. I was told to come at 8:00 a.m. the next day.

He comes out in his pajamas. He was a huge man. I had an hour meeting with him. I told him, “I am a missionary pilot in the Congo. I fly across your country 500 miles from Congo to Nairobi every week and we have trouble getting flight clearances. I have missionaries stuck in Congo who can’t get out and I can’t get in. We need those clearances.” He said, “You’ll have them in 10 hours.” And within a couple hours we had the clearances.

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What are some of the stories, the people you remember?

Dave: We were sitting with a group of chiefs and little kids. They were playing around the Land Rover. They had never seen one before, so they were looking in the windows and touching it.

Finally, they saw the rear-view mirror and they were scared to death because they saw this image moving in there. They asked, “Who is this spirit?” They were terrified. I don’t know if they had never seen their image in a lake or puddle, but they were just deathly afraid.

I was with Dr. Bud Frey who walked over and said, “Don’t be afraid. It’s not a spirit; it’s a reflection. It’s you that you’re seeing in that mirror. It’s not a spirit.” A little girl said, “It’s not me. I’m afraid.” Bud gets down in the dirt on his knees with this muddy little girl and put her little cheek up next to his so they could look at each other in the mirror together. He said, “See it’s me. Don’t be afraid.” Here he was, hugging this little girl in the mirror so she didn’t have to be afraid of evil spirits. That’s what missions are all about. And that’s why we do this. There were hundreds of stories like that.

You “retired” from the work in the early 80s or tried to.

Dave: Yes, we came home in 1983 to get our kids into college and began teaching at Everett Community College. I gave the mission my resignation, but they said they wouldn’t take it. A famine of “biblical proportions” had started in 1980, and they desperately needed short-term people for a disaster relief team. In the next 10-years, the silent assassin of hunger killed 30 million people who slowly starved to death. Only a handful of men flew the two Cessna Caravans and two Twin Otter plane. We flew 16 hours a day and averaged 30 landings a day, with each plane hauling food across the mountain canyons of Eritrea.

MAF asked us, “Rather than leave the mission, would you be willing to do short-term relief? We’ll give you a phone call and within 24 hours you have to be on the airplane willing to go anywhere in the world and stay for up to six months.” I did this for ten years and was gone for six months only one time, but they did let me come home for Christmas.

Marilee
: It was hard, but since we had been there together, I knew that when they say, “we need you,” the situation was bad. How could I say no?

Dave
: Most of these situations were either war zones, like Angola, or they were disaster relief like up in Mali, Sudan and Ethiopia. It was not safe for Marilee and the family to be there.

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How was Quest Aircraft created and launched?

Dave: Cessna quit building our basic airplane in 1986, and by 1996 we couldn’t buy any new airplanes. It’s like a cab company not being able to buy any new cabs. So, I set up an aircraft rebuild facility in Idaho, and I raised funds to buy used airplanes. We would rebuild them and send them out to the mission field. However, you can rebuild your ‘58 Chevy only so many times. Finally, you have to have a new airplane.

I thought, “I will set up a company that is not part of MAF. It will be a separate organization, but Missions can buy airplanes from us at cost.” I found 12 businessmen to form the board of directors, and we got the company up and running. We built a charitable trust to own the company; the commercial profits would go into the trust. The goal was to become a self-funding foundation for mission aircraft forever. We called it Quest Aircraft. My son is in marketing, and he did the corporate identity and website. We set the company up through donations and I raised some $60 million in 10 years.

We also sell them commercially. The company is just now beginning to show a profit. It will very soon be profitable and be able to fulfill our vision. We’ve already built 87 airplanes and 18 of them are in mission hands and flying all over the world. This is unprecedented. I literally worked 80 hours a week for ten years on this project. No wonder I’m “retired” now at 78 years old!

You mentioned your son did the marketing for Quest. Have any of your children followed in your footsteps?

Dave: Our daughter is over in Ethiopia with her husband. They’ve lived all over the Middle East and Africa since they married 25 years ago. Her husband was born in the Congo and she was born in Zimbabwe. They met in boarding school in Kenya. She is a midwife and is setting up a midwifery school in Aksum, Ethiopia. She eventually wants to get into Sudan because 40 percent of women die in childbirth there. She wants to help those women.

Marilee
: She looks like me, but she’s her dad with hormones!

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Article by Stacey Sanner, photographer and writer. She published her first book of interviews and photographs, "Keeping a Blue Light On: A Citizen's Tribute to the Seattle Police Department," in 2010. Learn more at www.keepingabluelighton.com.

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