“Ain’t nobody going to land an airplane in my field.”

By Rachel Greco

JAARS has been sending pilots, mechanics, and instructors up to the mountains of North Carolina for about 50 years to put the finishing touches on the pilots’ training before they head overseas to fly in some of the most difficult—if not the most difficult—terrain in the world.

This week and a half of training wouldn’t be possible without a team of people coming together. It wouldn’t even exist without the help of those who live in the area and let JAARS instructors and orientees land on their airstrips and fields. “What really shines at mountain week is seeing the community come together and their generosity over the past 50 years of JAARS first going up to the mountains,” BJ Diggins, the JAARS Aviation Training manager, said.

JAARS first conducted mountain flying in North Carolina in 1973. And from day one, the staff started meeting people and building relationships. Over the years, God has provided local advocates for JAARS who, once they learn what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, catch that vision. And from the mountains of North Carolina, they’re enabling God’s Word to spread in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Africa, and beyond.

The Montagues and Avery County Airport

One of the first couples that JAARS pilots met was Richard and Mary Montague in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. They invited the JAARS aviation team to work out of the Avery County airport when JAARS first came up for training.

The aviation team camped out in a flat, grassy area outside the hangar. “They would have a big tent that they cooked in,” Richard recalled.

After a few years, somebody suggested that the JAARS aviation team move into the hangar. “That became a home to them,” Richard said. “And JAARS has come up ever since, and it’s been a tradition and has worked really well.”

Mary enjoyed getting to know the JAARS pilots and mechanics over the years: “We became friends. They would invite us to take airplane rides with them, and we would find different places for them to land. They just became part of our family.”

Friendship with Jim Huff

The Montagues and other JAARS advocates in the Spruce Pine area helped JAARS pilots find grass airstrips where the Pre-Field Orientation trainees could train.

One early runway that the pilots still use today is Friendship, owned by Jim Huff. Right after it first opened in 1985, JAARS instructor Don Smith saw it, assessed it, landed, and introduced himself.

Upon finding out that Don was a fellow believer, and hearing about the purpose of JAARS, Jim said: “You guys can use this runway as much as you would like.” And 38 years later, pilots are still landing at and taking off from Jim’s runway.

During this year’s mountain week, which was held June 19-29, Friendship was orientee Gabe Lawrence’s favorite runway. “It’s a beautiful, fully sloped runway.”

Gabe will use this mountain-flying training frequently in serving the people in Papua, Indonesia!

Brown International  

BJ Diggins stands in front of Toña, one of the aircraft used at mountain week. PC: Ian Riley

Fred Brown’s runway was originally fields of corn and beans. In 1997, a local JAARS supporter saw an airplane land in that valley, so he grabbed the JAARS staff and drove to the place where he thought the plane had landed. He went up to meet Fred Brown.

After the staff member introduced himself and explained that he’d like to operate airplanes in and around Fred’s field, Fred replied, “Ain’t nobody going to land an airplane in my field.”

God had other ideas!

The JAARS supporter found some common ground with Fred, and about 30 minutes later, Fred was hooking up a tractor with a trailer, and the Pre-Field Orientation trainees were assessing the runway. “We got our shovels, and my whole orientation class filled in the low spots in the runway,” BJ explained. “We laid it out like JAARS had taught us to. And we opened that runway during my orientation.”

Today, Fred and his wife, Elizabeth, still enjoy sitting on their porch and watching the planes go by. Whenever JAARS opens the runway and puts up the wind sock, Fred calls the volunteer fire department to say, “Brown International’s open again. The JAARS boys are here.”

Strawberry Ridge

Over the past 15 years, the JAARS team has added Strawberry Ridge to the runways used for training during mountain week. The Montague family knew about the runway, and after church one Sunday, they drove BJ up to the hills in a failed attempt to find it.

About four months later, the Montagues called BJ and said they’d bumped into Strawberry Ridge’s owners—Bob and Patty Lance—at a café. The Lances had taken the Montagues up there, so the next time JAARS personnel went up, they were able to assess the runway. Bob even helped them remove a tree.

Strawberry Ridge remains one of the more challenging runways.

Ground Crews and Cooks

In addition to the community members who give up their land to JAARS for two weeks every year, the mechanics who act as ground crews also make mountain week possible.

“Being here at mountain week reminds me that as a group, we’re serving one another to make aviation possible,” Gabe explained. “There’s a ground crew who are making sure that we’re safe and are giving us feedback in the cockpit. That’s a huge service.”

The ground crews visit the runway before the pilots land to radio reports back to them on the wind and other weather conditions—whether it’s seen from the ground as safe to land.

As the pilots land, the ground crews measure the pilots’ flight angles and radio the information to the instructors to allow necessary adjustments.

As BJ said, “It’s like a Bible translation dedication. When you go overseas and there’s a dedication going on, there’s a lot of extra work. Everybody comes together and makes it happen. And we couldn’t do it without the support of everybody.”

You can’t forget the cooks! For three years, Missy Damon and her husband Jon, the JAARS maintenance training coordinator, and their family have been part of mountain week by providing meals for everyone involved during these two weeks. This is a vital service: No one wants to fly with a hungry pilot!

Opportunities to Serve

God is opening doors for new opportunities for JAARS to serve and train in the mountains of North Carolina.

Last year, the Montague family let the JAARS aviation training team know that the Avery County Airport Commission planned to lease the hangar.

Starting this month, JAARS will lease the hangar from the commission, which will give us the freedom to make the airport a permanent spot and reduce logistical headaches when we host mountain week.

Flying in the mountains of North Carolina gives missionary pilots good experience for serving in mountainous locations overseas. PC: Ian Riley

“It’s a big event to stage mountain week right now,” BJ explained. “We come up with 22 people, even though there’s only eight in training. It takes 14 more people—including flight instructors, maintenance instructors, and cooks—to do this.”

Now the JAARS aviation team will be able to operate at Avery County Airport whenever necessary with a minimum of advance preparation.

The lease will also increase our aviation training staff’s flexibility. “The team will have the ability to look at the weather, see where their trainees are, and say, ‘You’re ready for mountain flying. Next week, the weather looks good for three days. Let’s go.’ That’s going to give us a lot of flexibility in our training and enable us to come up here a lot more,” BJ said.

Just as it takes a team to make mountain week possible, it takes a team to ease burdens, reduce barriers, and deliver God’s Word in remote places around the world!

During mountain week, JAARS trained eight mechanics and pilots: a Papua New Guinean mechanic, two pilot-mechanics who will be serving with Africa Inland Mission, one pilot with South America Mission, and a pilot and a mechanic who will be going to Papua, Indonesia, with our aviation partner YAJASI. “We’re all thankful that JAARS can provide the training for us, the excellence in aviation, and [that we can] work as a team to extend the hope that we have in Jesus and the gospel,” Gabe said.

We need YOUR help as JAARS expands its services to the mountains of North Carolina to serve people with the gospel. Click here to find out how you can help.