[Air]Field of Dreams

“Field of Dreams,” a hit movie from the 1980s (adapted from the novel “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella), is a captivating story about an Iowa farmer who turned his land into a baseball diamond, confident that baseball legends would come if he built it. JAARS had its field of dreams, too, but it was a runway extension needed to train pilots to spread the Word of the Lord.

Missionary flying is perhaps the most challenging in the world. For example, the runway used by JAARS partners at Aziana, Papua New Guinea, is carved out of the forest at an elevation over 4000 feet. Its grass strip is short, narrow, and steeply sloped, with animals frequently grazing in the touchdown zone. Why would anyone risk flying into a field like this? Because the choices are a two-day overland trip or a nine-minute flight! The question then becomes: “How do you train pilots to operate safely out of airstrips like this?”

A volunteer team from Savannah(GA) Christian Church labored in the summer sun to clear a path for the runway extension.

The answer: you send your pilots to JAARS. For years, JAARS has supported mission aviation with specialized pilot training. Challenging airfields such as Aziana are not unique, so mission flight training must prepare pilots accordingly. Unfortunately, the existing grass strips at JAARS lacked slope and were just too short to accommodate the larger, turbine-powered aircraft that were coming into missionary service. JAARS pilots-in-training compensated for these shortcomings by flying to nearby fields but by 2009, several of these fields had closed, and the only one that had appreciable slope was up for sale.

JAARS personnel gathered to dedicate the newly revamped training runway to God’s service, and to rejoice in the very first landing.

The need for a new runway was clear, but the source of funding was not. Trusting in the Lord’s provision, JAARS Aviation personnel started construction anyway, clearing trees to extend an existing 600-foot, north-south runway. The theme of the book, and then the movie, was, “If you build it, he will come.” The theme for the JAARS workers was, “If you build it, God will provide.”

The first evidence of the Lord’s provision came when Andy Gudeman called JAARS. At the time, Andy was a campus worker with the Coalition for Christian Outreach at Penn State–Harrisburg. He had learned about JAARS from reading “Into the Glory,” the history of JAARS, and had called on a whim to see if there might be an opportunity for a mission-related trip for a group of engineering students. Yes, there was! While other students spent their spring break sleeping and partying, this group spent theirs planning and surveying. In another example of the Lord’s provision, an engineer from Andy’s affiliated church, who had worked on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, joined the team. Using this combination of expertise and dedication, the team surveyed the new runway site, staked out the boundaries, and came up with cost projections to complete the extension. With a plan in place but still no funding, aviation personnel at JAARS donated their time, equipment, and enough money to continue work on the runway. They cut down trees, cleared brush, dug out stumps, graded the extension (with their own equipment), and contoured side areas for erosion control. Nobody said this was going to be easy!

When Dan Miller wasn’t instructing helicopter pilots, he was manning a bulldozer to move dirt that built up the slope of the runway extension.

It soon became obvious that the project needed more volunteer labor. And the Lord provided. High school seniors from the ChristianAcademy in Sydney, Ohio used their annual mission trip to work on the runway. These motivated and dedicated youth cut down trees, piled logs for recycling, and hauled brush into the woods. Later that summer, a volunteer work team from Savannah Christian Church cut off the tree stumps and cleared the remaining brush between the runway and the woods.

The dedication of the workers was both inspirational and invaluable, but no amount of free labor could solve the next problem: dirt. The cleared surface needed dirt—and lots of it—but there was no money to purchase this unglamorous but vital commodity. Many prayers went out about this dilemma, and again the Lord responded. “Seek and ye shall find,”says Matthew 7:7. And the JAARS team found the dirt right under their noses! The North Carolina Department of Transportation had replaced a bridge on a road leading into the JAARS campus, and had dumped their excavated dirt on JAARS property. It was there for the taking, so once again JAARS workers showed up with their ‘dozers and dump trucks to haul the fill dirt to the runway. When this amount proved insufficient, another“mother lode” of free dirt appeared at a nearby construction site.

Finally, in 2014, JAARS was able to devote the remaining funding necessary for topsoil, grass and a safety fence around the entire extension. They prayed for dry weather during the planting, and for rain once the seed was established.God answered both prayers.

The lengthened runway was dedicated March 22, 2016.It has varying degrees of slope throughout its 1400-foot length, is surrounded by trees, and replicates conditions pilots will experience overseas. They can now train in larger aircraft without leaving the JAARS airport, saving precious dollars otherwise spent flying to outlying fields.

This cloud-covered landing strip, perched high on a mountain ridge in Papua New Guinea, is typical of many of the remote airstrips our pilots must navigate. Rigorous practice on a similar training runway must take place before this landing can be attempted.

The runway project accomplished all its goals and has been an unqualified success. But equally important was how its construction affected the people involved. One of the students on the surveying team from Penn State made this comment after the trip: “God definitely opened my eyes to what mission work is truly like and how we can all be used.” For Andy Gudeman, this trip influenced his decision to become a missionary pilot-mechanic. He now has his pilot’s license and is currently in training at MMS Aviation for his mechanic’s certificate. JAARS volunteers—too many to name—saw their faith, vision and hard work come together as tangible proof of what can be accomplished through trust in the Lord.

Eric Peterson, airport manager who oversaw the project, summed it up this way: “This was a team effort. It was the Body of Christ working together. God put this whole thing together, making us trust in him, and rest in his judgement.”

How the new north-south, sloping grass strip at JAARS came together was truly inspirational.We could call it a “field of dreams,”but more accurately, we should call it a “field of faith.”

Author Richard Shipman, a retired US Navy pilot, is now a volunteer member of theJAARS writing team.