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Interview: Becki Dillingham, Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot

25 November 2016

‘Our main work is to bring help, hope, and healing to isolated communities’


I was supposed to go on a school trip kayaking in Devon when I was nine years old, but this was just after a terrible accident on a school trip when many schoolchildren died; so my parents wouldn’t let me go. I was really upset, because all my schoolfriends were going; so they offered me a flying lesson at Exeter Flying Club instead.


They thought it would be a half-hour trip, and that would be it — not that I’d go on to make it my profession. I had a trial lesson, and really enjoyed the experience of flying. I asked for more lessons for every birthday and Christmas until I was old enough to earn the money to pay for them myself. As I flew more, and started to be able to take friends up, I enjoyed being able to share that experience with them.


I did a physics degree, in case I was unsuccessful as a pilot, but I’ve never really considered another pro­­­fession. I used to fly a small aircraft around Cornwall doing eye-in-the-sky traffic reporting. I’ve only had one worrying episode, when the engine started making strange noises, which was a bit dis­turbing. I just flew it to the engineers and they fixed it.


My first flight with passengers for MAF [Missionary Aviation Fellow­ship] was probably the proudest moment of my life. I had wanted to be a pilot for a long time, and had been working towards joining MAF for nine years. So, for it all to finally become a reality was very exciting.


I fly small light aircraft. For the past two years, I have been flying a Cessna 182 SMA with a diesel engine. It’s a very small plane, which seats just three people. It is really economical to run, which makes it popular with passengers — and because I’m so light, they get a bigger weight allowance for their luggage.


There is no particular plane I want to fly. I love being in the air, and being able to help people get to where they need to be. Which aircraft that’s in doesn’t really matter. Having said that, it would be fun to have a chance to go up in a Spitfire one day.


I’ve never wanted to be a com­mercial airline pilot: I love the job I do. Flying with MAF means you can talk to your passengers, share their work, and help them to achieve their goals. I can’t imagine getting the same opportunities with a commercial airline.


Working with MAF is wonderful, serving people and giving them opportunities they wouldn’t other­wise have. MAF engineers maintain the aircraft to a very high level. We return back to base every couple of days, and they check the aircraft every 50 hours.


MAF’s main work is to bring help, hope, and healing to isolated com­munities, and to spread the gospel to those who have not yet been reached. My last post was in Mada­gascar. I was based in the capital, Antananarivo, but I flew across the country. Most of the flights we did in Madagascar were either for the church, taking mis­sionaries, or to transport medical aid. MAF is funded through dona­tions, which subsidise the cost of flights for those using the aircraft.


Most of my passengers are doctors being taken to villages, or evangel­ists and local pastors. My plane is too small for a stretcher. Often, it’s easier to take the doctors to the patients, because, although there are good hospitals in cities, there aren’t the staff to treat them.


In Madagascar, the weather is very predictable: you can set the clock by when the rains are going to come. Sometimes we get delayed by the weather, but then we just stay overnight and come back the next day. But there’s a season in the year when you’re expecting that. It’s a change of plan, but a half-expected change of plan.


The days in the Madagascar pro­gramme are unpredictable: flights are booked or cancelled, often at the last minute. During the rainy season, the day will generally start early, with take-off between 5 and 6 a.m. (which means being at the airport by 4.30 a.m.). The last land­ing is usually around 3 p.m. During the dry season, it is more usual to take off at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and be back around 5 p.m. Generally, once a week, I will spend a night away from base somewhere, and return with the passengers the following day.


A flying day consists of preparing the aircraft and paperwork; weigh­ing the passengers and their luggage, flying to typically between one and three destinations and then getting back to base, or tying down the aircraft at an off-base location.


We generally spend four weeks every year in the UK, visiting churches and keeping supporters up to date with what we’re doing. It’s slower paced, but, for the most part, not dissimilar to being here [in Madagascar]: I’m either at work or with the family. But the faster pace in Madagascar takes some getting used to when we get back. When in the UK, it’s overwhelming to be with people who speak English; you understand everything. I’ve just given birth to my son, Luke, but I’ll go back out in the field by October of next year. And I’ll be revalidat­ing my UK licence by flying before then.


We’ve finished in Madagascar as far as we know, but we’re contracted to go to Chad next. Chad will be far tougher, which is one of the reasons we went to Madagascar first: to have a chance to learn the operations procedures of MAF and how a mis­sionary environment works, without the particular challenges of Chad. I’m not worried about our safety and security: MAF have a lot of experience of operating in those kinds of environments, and we’ll be with other families living in the compound. Everything is prepared and in place, and we have our hearts prepared and ready for it. We look forward to going where the need is even greater.


My husband is a teacher, and home schools our daughter, Bethan.


There was no “Damascus road” moment, no first experience of God that I can pinpoint. I grew up in a non-Christian home with my mother, stepfather, and brother, but I always felt that I identified as a Christian. As a teenager, I read a Gideon Bible I’d been given at the start of secondary school. But I didn’t have the opportunity to par­ticipate in a church community until I went to university.


The most reassuring sound is a happily running aircraft engine. My favourite sound is listening to my daughter’s breathing when she falls asleep.


The people who’ve most influenced me in life are those who told me that, for various reasons, I could not be a pilot. That increased my determination to achieve my dream.


The book I love most is the Bible. I have been inspired by Hope Has Wings (Mission Aviation Fellowship UK), Stuart King’s account of co-founding MAF. There’s God’s Smug­gler (Hodder & Stoughton) by Brother Andrew, another inspiring account of missionary work. And then the Poldark series of novels by Winston Graham, which were my go-to books as a teenager and young adult.


If, for any reason, I couldn’t be a pilot, I’d work in Flight Operations or Air Traffic Control. I have good organisational skills, and love plan­ning and solving problems; so these roles would suit me well.


I’m happiest when I’m spending time with my husband and daughter; and when I’m able to help MAF passengers, making a differ­ence to their work.


We pray before every flight, for the work that our passengers will be doing, and for God’s protection over the flight.


I would choose to be locked in a church with a good friend who knows me well, makes me laugh, and holds me accountable. We live in a fortunate time, because we have the internet, and it really helps to keep in contact with people. She’s been to visit us, and when we do see each other, it’s as if we’ve never been away. Coming back every year helps, too; with some organisations, people are away for three or four years. And you know how it is: some of our friends we now see more often because they actually make the effort to come and see us, whereas with some, when they lived up the road, it could be months and months before we would finally manage to meet up.


Becki Dillingham was talking to Terence Handley-MacMath.

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