Crisis in the Turkana
We can trace the history of Wings of Hope to 1959 in the Turkana, a desert region in northwest Kenya. It was a year of a terrible drought. Four out of every five camels and goats were wiped out. Then came the rains, which caused massive flooding. Even after the flooding stopped, the depletion of animal herds threatened the people’s existence. Government relief camps provided scant support, prompting Nairobi officials to grant missionaries access to the region in 1961.
The Catholic missionaries poured in, and among them was Mike Stimac of the Medical Missionaries of Mary. Stimac quickly realized that transportation was one of the biggest obstacles to getting help to the people. Just traveling between Lodwar and Kitale, 140 miles by plane, was a 15-hour journey by jeep!
Jerry Fay, a pilot for Pacific Northern Airlines, connected Stimac with Bishop Joseph Houlihan, whose diocese spanned the Turkana. Houlihan talked with Fay about using light aircraft to transport people and supplies across the desert, an expansive area encompassing over 36,000 square miles. After discussing the myriad challenges, including a non-descript desert landscape that makes flying disorienting and dangerous, the two men launched a plan to bring a plane to Kenya. Fay recruited Pacific Northern co-worker and friend Everett (Bud) Donovan to travel with him to Africa to set up the new program. Then, they established the Marian Medical Airplane Fund to raise the $11,000 needed to buy a new Piper Super Cub 18A. Neither anticipated that raising the capital for the plane would be far easier than actually getting it to its destination. In February 1963, they shipped the plane in a crate from Piper Aircraft in Lock Haven, Pa., to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The journey was fraught with delays, but after several weeks, the plane finally arrived at Ethiopia ready for assembly.
Donovan made quick work of building the Piper Super Cub. Just four days after it arrived, he was flying it 130 miles south of Addis Ababa to scout for scarce aviation resources.
“After I had made a landing in a deserted area near Lake Awassa, one of the plane’s tires rolled off,” Donovan said. “I walked nine miles before I found a radio station so I could report that I was alright. I then walked back, fixed the tire and flew back to Addis Ababa.”
The next leg of the journey was a 700-mile trip to the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where Wilkins Air Service would provide all the maintenance and parts needed to keep the Piper flying. Over the next three weeks, Donovan would fly over 80 hours – moving supplies to mission stations and educating the missionaries about the aircraft.
During their time in Turkana, Fay and Donovan were pleased with the progress they saw: new buildings being erected for hospitals and schools, and supplies moving efficiently throughout the six mission locations. It would now truly be possible for the missionaries to implement their strategy of first providing food, then medical attention, and then education.
“We were convinced that air transportation is the only answer to the mission-supply problem in Africa,” both pilots said. “We can see where this small effort of ours proved this. And we hope we will be able to get this message across this country to those who have a means to supply the air transportation.”