Ruth Whitaker writes:
VETERAN of the Normandy landings, aviation pioneer, and co-founder of the largest humanitarian airline, Stuart King passed away peacefully in Folkestone, Kent, on 29 August, aged 98. It was the 75th year of the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), the life-saving air service that Stuart helped form in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Together with a handful of Christian airmen, Stuart believed that aviation and technology could be used to help the most vulnerable, hard-to-reach places — and this passion grew to become a lifelong mission. He always called himself an “ordinary man, serving an extraordinary God”. But Stuart was far from ordinary. He was an incredibly humble man, tenacious, determined to help those in need, and full of warmth, with an infectious sense of humour.
As an engineering graduate and member of the Cardiff University Air Squadron, Stuart was set on becoming a pilot. But, sitting before an RAF selection board in 1941, he was told that engineers were like gold dust in wartime Britain. By June 1944, Stuart had arrived in Normandy as the engineer officer for 247 Fighter Squadron, joining the frontline with a fleet of ground-attack Hawker Typhoons.
In his book Hope Has Wings, Stuart recalled when words from Psalm 34 became very real as German aircraft swept low and cannon shells splintered close by: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.” These moments of bravery were crafting a man chosen by God for an enormous, life-changing task.
In 1945, Stuart’s mother sent him an article written by the RAF pilot Murray Kendon about using aircraft for mission work. Contacting him with technical ideas, Stuart found himself part of a fledgling MAF — blindly turning down an RAF commission at the prompting of Hebrews 11: “By faith Abraham went: not knowing where he was going.”
On a wet and windy day in January 1948, Stuart and the former RAF Squadron Leader Jack Hemmings left Croydon airfield in MAF’s first Miles Gemini aircraft. With little more than a map and a compass, the pair began a pioneering, six-month survey to explore whether aircraft could assist the work of humanitarian missionaries dotted across Africa. Their route took them across Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, and the Belgian Congo, using the River Nile as their guide.
Facing hazardous terrain and unimaginable needs, Stuart and Jack discovered that the only way to bring help to many remote areas was to build airstrips. With purpose-built light aircraft, emergency cargo, missionary personnel and medical equipment could arrive safely — saving days of dangerous travel by treacherous or non-existent roads.
By 1951, Stuart had worked tirelessly to secure permissions to fly in Sudan, MAF’s first African operation. There he met Phyllis, a missionary working in Abaiyat, southern Sudan. The couple married the following year and Phyllis became invaluable, managing the accounts and correspondence, and ordering aircraft parts — including a propeller that they stored under the bed.
In 1958, the Kings flew 5000 miles in MAF’s first Cessna 180 aircraft to Sudan, which took 12 days and involved “drying nappies on our laps”, as Stuart humorously recalled. They raised their family, Rebecca, John, and Priscilla, through MAF’s early years while overseeing expansion across Africa. Stuart always spoke about having a special place in his heart for the people of Sudan.
Returning to the UK in the 1973, Stuart headed up MAF’s operations in Folkestone as General Director for 13 years. By 1980, MAF had purchased six Cessna aircraft, and co-piloted surveys to launch operations in Kenya, Ethiopia, Chad, and Tanzania.
Appointed President Emeritus in 1987, Stuart continued to serve MAF throughout his retirement. His dear Phyllis passed away unexpectedly in 2003 — after 50 years devoted to her Lord, her family, and the vision of MAF.
Stuart regularly came into our MAF office, well into his nineties. He had an exceptional ability humbly to encourage, guide, and support our team — always encouraging the next generation to see MAF grow beyond his expectations.
It was only recently that Stuart was acknowledged for his great achievements — appointed Chevalier in the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government in 2016, and receiving the Award of Honour from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots in 2019, an award whose previous recipients include Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and the Red Arrows.
Now, 75 years after Stuart co-founded MAF, 138 light aircraft serve remote communities in 26 countries, employing 1300 staff, 1000 of whom are local people. Working with more than 2000 church and aid organisations, Stuart’s vision to take the love of God to the most isolated has become the world’s largest humanitarian
air service. His legacy will continue to transform lives long into the future.
It was a great privilege to know this remarkable man — engineer, pilot, visionary, missionary, and humble friend.