The Fellowship of Pilots is a Beautiful Thing

10:24 PM

As I sit here in the Outagamie Regional Airport (KATW) waiting to depart Wisconsin after two days of sun and fun at Airventure, I am reflecting on many things that I have seen and done in the past few dozen hours.

EAA's Airventure Oshkosh is a mega compilation of all that makes our general aviation world so unique and special. It is the joy of seeing beautiful new flying machines and museum-quality vintage birds up close. It is the camaraderie of rubbing elbows with the best quality people on the planet. And, it is wandering jam-packed exhibit halls gawking at everything from the latest avionics to the all-in-one airplane repair tool/flashlight that fits in your flight bag and can slice and dice kumquats, open an MRE and allow a Missionary pilot to rebuilt his engine while stranded in the Amazon jungle.

And speaking of Missionary pilots, I met one on this trip that exemplifies all that makes the pilot community so special to me. You know about Missionary pilots, those adventurous men and women that fly Cessna 206s, Helio Couriers and now the Quest Kodiak into tiny remote mud strips carved out of the side of a hill in a "one way in, one way out" canyon deep in the most exotic corners of this Earth. Their work often goes unnoticed by many outside of aviation, but it is these courageous sticks who sometimes make the difference between life and death to native tribes that have no other contact with the outside world.
As I tried my luck with United Airlines flying commercial to Oshkosh last weekend, I got as far as ORD in Chicago when my luck ran out. The last plane of the night – a Mesa Airlines quick-hopper up to KATW – had been delayed a few hours, and the full flight, made up of mostly aviators trying to get to Airventure, was getting restless after two gate changes. But when the Gate Agent announced our flight had been canceled, we 60 or so Oshkosh-bound customers were at that point screwed.
But wait, we are PILOTS, we can surely find a way out of this mess. And we did:
When they made the announcement that we were not flying to ATW tonight on any airline, and with no car rentals left anywhere in Wisconsin, our options were running out fast. We all were herded to Customer Service and began waiting for the bad news. We were not getting to Oshkosh in time for the opening day on Monday. I was standing next to a tall gentleman and while not trying to listen in to his conversation, his phone and my ear were maybe 24" part. I heard him arrange to have a van come all the way from the Oshkosh area and get him. When he hung up, I quickly apologized for accidentally overhearing his conversation, but told him if he had any room in the van, I'm in for as much cash as he needed if he could get me to Oshkosh that night. He had five seats left, and I jumped on one. Problem solved.
Turns out the van's drivers were actually coming from Wautoma, WI, about 40 minutes west of Oshkosh. Their drive to ORD would be well over four hours, so we had plenty of time to kill. And I used that time to make friends with the man who arranged the van, Dave Voetmann, who happens to be one of the "Co-Visionaries" of Quest Aircraft, makers of the Kodiak turboprop. Also along in the van were other complete strangers who became fast friends, Gary from Santa Monica and Joe, an international 767 Captain for United. And yes, Joe made it crystal clear that it was Mesa Airlines that should be cursed this night and not his employer.

But it was Dave Voetmann who made this night the kind that we pilots hold dear. Our community is small, but the fellowship we share is huge, and each pilot has his/her story to tell. Voetmann was one of the founders of Quest, and worked directly with Missionary pilots around the world to take a blank sheet of paper and design the nearest thing to the perfect aircraft to serve their purpose. He has flown into the most difficult strips anywhere since the very early 1960s, and his stories were the sort that are so intriguing that you just know every word was true, this stuff you just can't make up. While waiting for the van and then for the next fours hours as we pushed north to Oshkosh, Dave entertained us with endless stories that all went something like this:
A tired looking but capable Cessna 206 loaded 200 pounds over gross is lumbering along up a remote canyon in the Amazon. Low clouds obscure the steep cliffs just off the wingtips, and without GPS or even a working VOR station, navigation is out the windscreen. Inside the plane are boxes of bibles, medicine, food, trading trinkets and even a few live chickens. Flying the plane, Voetmann slows the plane to near stall as he descends around a blind corner, dancing with the Devil as he must stay fast enough to remain airborne, but slow enough to make the approach that lay ahead. As he and the 206 rounds the turn, a short muddy "strip" cut literally by machete out of the jungle is seen, and he sticks the plane on where the numbers would be if this kind of remote strip HAD numbers. He stands on the brakes, the live chickens freak out, and as the prop stops, the native people emerge from the trees to welcome him. After offloading his cargo and refueling from barrels of avgas that had to be trekked into the strip on the back of animals or in some sort of wagon, he points the prop out of the canyon and performs a dramatic max performance takeoff to clear tall trees that mark the "perimeter" of this "airport".
Dave Voetmann and his fellow Missionary pilots will do this same type of edge-of-your seat flying tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. He has done this for years, and for decades. Today, the company he helped to birth is hoping to deliver thousands of very capable Kodiaks to his brethren around the world, allowing them to haul more, go farther, and do more of God's work. The idea is simple, take some of the profit from every nine Kodiaks delivered for commercial use and use those funds to reduce the cost of the 10th one to near cost for delivery to the many Missionary groups waiting in line for this extremely capable aircraft.

The way this van trip to Oshkosh developed, and they way we wayward flyers came together as quick friends to pool our cash and made the trip happen is what flying is all about. I don't believe I have ever met such a colorful, generous, more respectable man that Dave Voetmann, he is just a class act in every way. The number of people this man has helped around the world cannot be counted, but I promise you this: Not one of those native people who have met one of his mission flights in a jungle far from civilization will ever forget this skilled but honestly humble pilot.

And neither will I.

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