DR Congo Receives the Gift of New Wings
by Jacques Umembudi, Gaston Ntambo, & Rukang Chikomb
All three of the Congolese aviation ministry pilots attended General Conference: Jacques Umembudi and Gaston Ntambo as delegates and Rukang Chikomb as a volunteer interpreter for the Global Ministries Language Interpretation team. In addition to their General Conference duties, they met with Global Ministries’ staff and with supporters from United Methodist conferences to discuss fundraising plans for a new Cessna Caravan plane. Each pilot had a story to tell and a witness to make. Chikomb and Ntambo serve with the Wings of the Morning Aviation Ministry in Southern Congo and North Katanga, and Umembudi serves with the Wings of Caring in Central Congo.
I am Jacques Umembudi, a Global Ministries missionary from the Central Congo Episcopal Area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps you are asking, “Why are there three pilots from the Congo?” The DR Congo is a big country, about three times the size of the state of Texas. In all that space, it has less than 800 miles of road—all of it very bad. So transportation is a critical issue in the DR Congo—especially in times of emergency. When we fly, we are responding to a “911” call. Aviation ministry is a life-saving device, and not only does it save lives, it transforms the world.
We have three episcopal areas here: the Central Congo Episcopal Area, the North Katanga Episcopal Area, and the Southern Congo Episcopal Area. The DR Congo aviation program operates in each of the episcopal areas. Right now, in the whole of the DR Congo, we have four Cessna airplanes: two 206 models and two 210s.
Some people have accepted God just because they were transported by a mission plane. While we have expertise in both flying the plane and fixing the plane, we do so in the context of a global church with a global connection. All of us together are engaged in transforming the world. Because of you, we can help to make that transformation possible.
Last year, we got a call saying that a schoolteacher had been attacked by a crocodile beside a river. When I arrived, I discovered that the crocodile had snapped off the man’s whole left arm, and he was bleeding to death. We flew in, gathered him up, tried to stanch the bleeding, and flew him to a nearby Presbyterian hospital.
About three weeks later, I was sent to fly him back to his village. He came to me to express his gratitude. To express gratitude, Africans take your two hands in ours to say thank you. But, as the man stood there, unable to speak, he started to cry. “I cannot express my gratitude,” he said. “I don’t have a left hand anymore. But please understand I am very grateful to you for saving my life.” I told him, “Just say thanks to God, because God is the one who provided.”
We are the instruments of God. There are places in the areas over which we fly where even to find simple necessities, like salt or soap, is very difficult. And sometimes when we fly, we don’t realize the impact that the aviation ministry is having on the people we serve. You can fly just to deliver a small package of medicine, and that is what will save someone’s life. Every day we struggle, because often we know we do not have the fuel to fly that small package of medicine, and that patient is going to die.
Our planes can’t take regular fuel; they have to have Av gas (Aviation fuel). You cannot get that in the DR Congo. So, to get fuel when I’m in the Central Congo area, I have to fly south to Zambia. Once I fly five hours to Zambia to get the fuel, my fuel reserve will last only three hours. This will help you understand how difficult the fuel situation is.
We are involved in a collective ministry. We are doing our part, and we ask the church, as a global partner, to do her part. We are very thankful for people who support our ministries—often people we have never met. We are together on this mission journey.
Jacques Umembudi Akasa is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries assigned to the Wings of Caring Aviation Ministry in Kinshasa, DR Congo, as pilot-mechanic and program director. Born in Yamba-Yamba, DR Congo, Umembudi has been a mission pilot-mechanic since 1990.
My name is Gaston Ntambo. I’m a missionary pilot for Wings of the Morning flight ministry based in the North Katanga Annual Conference. For the 17 years that I have been a pilot for Wings of the Morning, I have felt like a fireman.
Like firefighters, we live in a constant state of “standby,” anxiously waiting for the call to the next medical flight. In the DR Congo, it takes about 12 hours to do a 60-mile trip driving a land vehicle. That is in the dry season. In the rainy season, you just don’t try it.
The pilots of the UMC aviation ministry give people a second chance at life. It is not unusual for people to walk 60 to 100 miles to reach a hospital. The people we fly have already tried everything else available. They have used the traditional medicine and may have seen the traditional doctor or even the voodoo doctor. Now they are in the last stage of living. That’s when their relatives desperately seek help for them. Basically, we are their one chance to survive.
Like most United Methodists, we have district superintendents, but in the DR Congo, every district superintendent has a ham (amateur) radio. If the village people can get to the district superintendent, and if the DS can reach us on the radio, then we can get to the patient as quickly as possible.
Jeanne Ntambo, my wife, is my radio operator. She keeps me alive. She is also a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries. Together, we have been a team, reaching out to anyone who calls. Whether the callers are United Methodists or non-United Methodists, Christians or Muslims, we get to them and fly them to safety.
I moved to the United States and earned my license as a commercial pilot, thinking I was going to return to the DR Congo in that capacity. However, my first medical flight convinced me to be a missionary. I was in a village in Niembo with my wife and some missionaries, and they called me up for a medical flight. The flight would take less than 10 minutes, but the trip would have taken a day and a half to walk and a whole day on a bicycle. There was no way to get a land vehicle in as there was no road into this village.
I landed in the village to find a gentleman who, while hunting, had been trapped in the middle of a bush fire. The only way he was able to survive was to find a hole to hide in. He was able to survive in that hole, but about 60 percent of his body was burned when I found him. He smelled like charred flesh.
His family had given up hope. He could not move and was in a lot of pain. I flew him about a 45-minute flight to the hospital in Mulongo, believing that surely he would die before we got there. Approaching the field for landing, I looked back at him, and he was still alive. That hooked me. For some reason, I felt I could never be anywhere else but there. Now, I have gotten used to seeing the hand of God at work every day. I flew back home and prayed for the best for that man.
About three months later, my wife called me, saying that there was a gentleman outside to see me. “And he’s got some people with him,” she said. I went outside, and the man said, “You don’t remember me.” He was right, I did not recognize him. He said, “I’m the gentleman that was burned.”
My hair stood on end. I hadn’t believed he would survive. As I was talking to him, tears formed in my eyes. This gentleman was alive because of God and the Wings of the Morning flight ministry. He would not have made it to the hospital on time any other way. I didn’t know that he was the father of seven children. To see all of his children standing next to him, I knew that God had used me as an instrument to save him. We are engaged in a life-saving ministry.
The biggest problem that both Papa Jacques (Umembudi) and I have is aviation fuel. The most difficult thing we face in Congo is not flying in bad weather or landing on difficult airstrips. It is having to fly in the wrong direction first to get fuel, while knowing that someone is dying behind us. We have no choice. We do the best we can to plan for it. But if we are flying every day, we are going to run out of fuel.
I’ve lost two people as a result of this situation. One gentleman fell off a train. When you see women and children hanging off the top of a freight train, you can guess that there is no room on board for patients.
This particular gentleman fell off the train and got his legs cut off by the train’s wheels. While I’m flying in the wrong direction, I know this person is bleeding to death. I land our small plane in Zambia, put a 55-gallon drum of Av gas (about 10 jerry cans) in the back, and I realize—“I’m a flying bomb.” But I fill up the plane, fly home, land, and refuel from the drum in the plane. Finally, six hours later, I can fly to the man in need.
He and I flew for only a half hour, and he died inside the plane. It was very difficult for me, after all that, to fly home. I felt like I had failed.
People have no way of getting out of their villages to hospitals. Yet the cost and unavailability of aviation gasoline is making flight extremely difficult. We will continue to need your support to keep this ministry going. For our part, all three pilots are committed to this ministry. Every flight we make has a story. We have stuck with this program because of the effect it has on our lives and on the lives of people in the DR Congo.
We are raising money to buy a Cessna Grand Caravan. That type of plane uses a cheaper kind of fuel, Jet A, which is available in the DR Congo. The plane is intended for the North Katanga Annual Conference, which has a partnership with the West Ohio Conference. Many churches have been raising money for the plane. Each one of us is looking forward to getting a plane that uses cheaper and readily available fuel. By available, I mean that a phone call brings a fueling truck to the hangar.
I have waited 17 years to see that fuel truck come to me. Papa Jacques has waited even longer. Eventually, we hope to raise enough funds to purchase a Cessna Caravan for all three flight programs in the DR Congo.
Personally, I have a vision of making the larger Cessna Caravan a flying clinic. Imagine flying into a village bringing medicines and a team of doctors and nurses with you to treat the village people right there. We’d save a lot of money and, of course, a lot of lives. We would still need to take more severe cases of illness or injury to the hospital; but, on the way back, we could also transport medicine and make several stops.
We are about $500,000 short of the total $1.6 million needed to purchase the plane. I’m pretty sure it is going to happen this year. The commitment that I see across the church is far beyond anything I have seen before.
Gaston Nkulu Ntambo is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries assigned to the aviation program of the DR Congo. Based in Luena, Ntambo serves as a pilot-mechanic with the Wings of the Morning Aviation Ministry in the North Katanga Conference. He has served as a missionary pilot for 17 years.
I started working with the aviation program in 1990, helping to build a hangar from scratch. After that, I worked in the shop as a mechanic’s helper.
In 1999, I moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, where I started school. After graduation, I was going back and forth to the DR Congo. My wife, Fresie, and I started a family in the United States. We were waiting for a time when it was comfortable for all of us to move back to the DR Congo. Our children are now ages 12, 10, and 4. Fresie and I were both commissioned as Global Ministries’ missionaries in 2011. My area with Wings of the Morning is the Southern Congo-Zambia Episcopal Area, based in Lubumbashi. I fly a Cessna 210.
We returned to the DR Congo in January 2012. That was the first time my kids had ever been to the Congo. Fresie had not returned since 1999, but I have been in and out every three months. The hardest thing for my kids to deal with has been seeing other kids in the DR Congo who don’t have the things they have. My youngest one noticed many kids walking to school in the rain and asked, “Daddy why?” My kids asked me to stop and give all the kids walking to school a ride. It has been a very challenging thing for them. We are helping them understand.
My story is unique. Growing up as a kid, I helped the missionary pilots unload the airplanes and watched them load the sick patients. We kids prayed for the patients beside the plane. Then, after graduation, when I had obtained my pilot’s license, I became the pilot flying to a village in the DR Congo. The children still gather around the airplane when it lands, just as I used to do. When I saw them there, it struck me—I became emotional. Greeting those kids, I told them: “You can be me one day. I was you— standing right there. And the way I became a pilot was by listening to God.”
I came from a very poor family. But God made up the difference, because God believed in me. And that’s what is keeping me and my family in the Congo every day. We find ourselves saying, “We are making a difference.” It can be discouraging going through a tough time in the Congo, but when we remember that we are here for a purpose, as people for God, God leads us.
When I fly people who are very sick from a village to Lubumbashi, I can get wrapped up in the job of flying and forget that someone’s life may be at stake. That is what strikes me—I may be saving someone’s life. Missionaries saved my life when I was a little one. I was very sick with malaria; I nearly died. The missionaries took care of me.
On some days, I say I am paying back; but on other days, I say I am witnessing God’s love. That is what matters to us: to witness that God is love. Through all the difficulties and the joys, we get through this work only if we trust God.
The plane is only a tool, sending a message in different ways. In 2008, I took a young woman who was ready to give birth from her village to Lubumbashi. She had complications, but we got to Lubumbashi on time. When I stopped in her village a while later, she hugged me and said: “You saved me and my baby, and the baby is strong.” I told her to go and do likewise for somebody else.
My area is closer to Zambia than the other two aviation areas—only 45 minutes away. The Av gas is now $843 for 53 gallons, if you can get it. With a new airplane that uses commercial fuel, we are hoping to show a cost reduction in the long run. The initial program for the new plane is looking good. I said to my colleague, “People are believing in us!” And I would like to say to you: “Just keep praying. Don’t stop.”
Rukang D. Chikomb is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries assigned as director of the Southern Congo Wings of the Morning, the aviation ministry of the Southern Congo/Zambia Episcopal Area. Chikomb was born in Lubumbashi, DR Congo, and commissioned as a missionary in 2011.
Goal Achieved for First Cessna Grand Caravan
The June annual conference season in the United States has brought good news for the Dr Congo aviation ministries. The goal of raising the last $500,000 for the Cessna Caravan has been met. In fact, the West Ohio Conference raised more than $1 million for the aviation ministries with a “miracle offering” at the 2012 Annual Conference!
In addition, the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference raised $300,000 for the ministry, and the North Katanga Conference itself pledged $25,000 toward the goal. This is remarkable, considering the average income in the conference for members is about $10 a month.
Receiving the news, Gaston Ntambo wrote a letter of thanks:
“You have just opened the biggest door for mission work and for a country—maybe even countries—to come to know and seek the face of our Lord Jesus. Thank You is not the word I am looking for. It is not enough!”