On A Mission

Helimission is currently performing large amounts of relief work at refugee camps in Ethiopia. Helimission Photo
Helimission is currently performing large amounts of relief work at refugee camps in Ethiopia. Helimission Photo

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Seventy-five ” taken alive. Thats the saying that helps most pilots remember that squawking the transponder code 7500 signals a hijacking. 
While very few helicopter pilots alive today have ever actually been hijacked, one who has is Ernie Tanner, the founder of a missionary aviation organization called Helimission. Indeed, Tanners life has been filled with so many adrenaline-filled moments it makes the lives of fictional characters like Indiana Jones seem almost mundane.
As a helicopter pilot and flight instructor currently working toward achieving the necessary prerequisites to fly for Helimission, myself, I had the tremendous honor of interviewing Tanner at the dining table of his mountainside home near Trogen, Switzerland, in June 2011. The occasion was a celebration of Helimissions 40th anniversary, an event that drew pilots and mechanics for this all-volunteer organization from all over the world.
The Beginnings
After becoming a Christian in his teenage years, Tanner felt Gods call to become a missionary to tribal villages scattered throughout the dense jungles of Africa. Reaching these remote villages frequently involved long and dangerous treks that put him and his fellow missionaries at risk of diseases such as malaria and typhoid fever and made them vulnerable to capture by rebel forces, local tribes and anyone or any group in between. Then, in the 1960s, through coverage of the Vietnam War, Tanner heard of a machine that supposedly could take off and land vertically. Although completely unfamiliar with the capabilities of the helicopter at the time, he felt it would be a Godsend for missionaries trying to reach otherwise unreachable groups of people.
After returning home to Switzerland in 1970, Tanner took a demo flight in a Bell 47 with the countrys pioneering helicopter operator, Heliswiss, and was immediately convinced of the potential of rotary-winged aircraft for missionary and development work. Within three weeks ” after his instructors at Heliswiss said it couldnt be done ” Tanner became a licensed helicopter pilot. Shortly thereafter, having been denied assistance by numerous other missionary organizations from around the world, he set off on his own for Dallas, Texas, to purchase a used Bell 47J with funds obtained from private donations and refinancing his house.
In Dallas, the Bell 47 was disassembled, registered with the tail number HB-XDK and then shipped to Switzerland. Upon its re-assembly in Zurich, Helimission was born. And, so began an adventure that has been far greater than anyone could have ever fathomed.
An Incredible Journey
For his first trip, Tanner set course a few thousand miles south, and headed for the west coast of Africa. An hour into that flight, however, he found himself quite lost. Landing in a field adjacent to a small restaurant in the Swiss countryside, he pulled out a map and asked the restaurant staff if they could help him find his current location. Despite this humorous mishap, he persevered and upon reaching Cameroon became the first person to solo a helicopter across the Mediterranean Sea and also the first to solo across the Sahara Desert. What was even more remarkable was that he had only 37 hours of flight time when he began that journey.
Over the next several decades, Tanner not only survived the aforementioned hijacking, but numerous robberies, several emergency landings and even a few crashes. What made his repeated escapes so poignant was the fact that he was not just performing missionary work during many of these incidents; he was providing lifesaving assistance to people in developing nations. 
Since its founding, Helimission has provided aid to tens of thousands of people in need. During the Ethiopian famine of the 1970s, Helimission volunteers distributed several tons of food on a daily basis. After the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Helimission transported food, medical supplies and doctors to both countries. From Africa, to Central and South America, to the Caribbean, to the South Pacific and even Europe, Helimission has assisted in countless disaster relief operations over the past 40 years. 
Today, Helimission has 10 helicopters ” including Bell 206B JetRangers, 206L LongRangers and Eurocopter AS350 AStars ” to help with its aid, missionary and development work, and has permanent bases in Ethiopia, Madagascar and Indonesia. Both its mechanics and pilots (many of its pilots are trained mechanics, as well) live year-round in these locations, and receive no salary for their efforts; they are supported only by donations, typically from friends, family and their local churches. For most of its efforts, Helimission only requires the groups it supports to cover the fuel costs for the helicopters; however, it has often flown free of charge for medical emergencies and catastrophic operations. Still, every helicopter it owns is completely paid for, and the entire organization itself is debt-free.
A Passion for Helping
To better understand why anyone would voluntarily undertake these hardships, I spent countless hours talking with the pilots and mechanics at Helimissions 40th anniversary celebration. One pilot described the wonder of flying an AStar into dense African rainforests to reach tribes that had never before seen anyone from a different culture. Another talked about the challenge of flying in Indonesia ” transporting Bibles, missionaries, food and medical supplies to remote villages scattered throughout its dense jungles. 
I had heard these stories many times before, but hearing them first-hand made me realize why these flying missionaries do what they do. The pilots and mechanics at Helimission are not your typical aviators: they dont work in aviation, or at Helimission specifically, just for the adventure or the challenge, or the other normal reasons most are drawn to aviation ” and they certainly dont do it for money or recognition. They do all this because of their personal faith and a passion for helping others, and because helicopters give them the chance to do more of this than ever before.

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