The Last Flight Of Charlie Brown – by Rebecca Hopkins
Written and submitted by Rebecca Hopkins – It was just 8:30 in the morning and the clouds were already building. Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot Brad Hopkins checked the schedule again, looked at the weights he’d gotten of passengers on other flights later that day, and chatted on the airplane radio with the office. “I promised this pastor in Naan to take him and his stuff to Kurun,” Hopkins said. “And then there are the other pastors later. But if the weather’s bad, I have to add more fuel, and fuel is heavy.”
Here in Kalimantan, Indonesia, weather changes. Schedules change. Plans change. Change is, in many ways, just a part of an ordinary day for this airplane. But today wasn’t just an ordinary day. It was Charlie Brown’s last flight … ever. Charlie Brown is the affectionate name pilots, ground crew and passengers have given this nearly 50-year-old Cessna 185 that MAF bought for $1 back in 1969. Its official registration number is PK-MCB, or in pilot-speak, Mike Charlie Bravo. This float plane and MAF’s other Cessna 185 on floats, PK-MCD, or “Charlie Delta”—equally old—will be crated up and sent to MAF’s headquarters in Idaho this fall. Most likely, the planes will be put on display there.
Schedules change. Plans change. Change is, in many ways, just a part of an ordinary day for this airplane. But today wasn’t just an ordinary day. It was Charlie Brown’s last flight …
Charlie Brown is just one of MAF’s 135 planes serving humanitarian, disaster relief and church needs in remote, hard-to-reach areas in 26 countries throughout South America, Asia and Africa. MAF is getting a new plane in early 2018—an amphibious Kodiak. The Kodiak was first built in 2007, but the Aerocet amphibious version is even newer. The Kodiak will extend MAF’s range, increase the load capacity, save time, and in general, provide an even safer option for the challenging flying in Kalimantan, explained Hopkins. As base manager for MAF’s Palangkaraya base, he’s tasked with integrating the new Kodiak in 2018.
“We could get this entire thing done plus some in an hour of flying in the Kodiak,” Hopkins said as he flew. These Cessna 185 float planes have given MAF a chance to land on jungle rivers to serve the geographically isolated indigenous communities of Kalimantan with medevacs, supply runs and reliable air transportation in this rugged area with few passable roads. These rivers are dynamic, Hopkins explains. Some days, the water’s high. Other days, it’s low, changing current and exposing or hiding sand bars. The rivers are also filled with villagers in boats who may not notice the plane about to land. And they’re dotted with gold miners whose equipment takes up landing space.
“At an airport, once you’ve landed, you’re done,” Hopkins explained. “But not here. Once you’ve landed, the real work begins.” This area also has very few runways, but the ones available can soon be accessed by the amphibious Kodiak, Hopkins said. “The amphib gives us a safe option—the chance to land at an airport, if needed,” he said.
In Charlie Brown, Hopkins delivered fellow MAF worker Abet Nego to the community of Tumbang Naan to fix their radio, and then flew some pastors in to their village. Abet Nego was able to repair the radio, which allows the villagers to keep in contact with the outside world. Hopkins maneuvered the plane around the weather and arrived safely at home at the end of the day.
While everyday change and adjustments have been normal throughout the around 50,000 flight hours and 100 years of flying that pilots and mechanics have logged with Charlie Brown and Charlie Delta, these normal days have transected with extraordinary moments in the lives of many of its passengers. This plane has saved lives, grown the church and been a constant, every day, but critical part of many communities in this area.
“I like the float plane aspect of it,” Hopkins said. “But it’s still the people that give me purpose to this flying. I feel privileged to be here.” Fifty years ago, Jihun Alpius transported missionaries and their cargo on a type of motorized boat that took four days to get to remote village outposts. That boat went out of service, due, in part, to Charlie Brown’s one hour flight for the same distance. In the 1970s, Alpius jumped at the chance to work for MAF, and spent 30 years taking care of Charlie Brown. “I don’t know how the church in Kalimantan would’ve grown without MAF,” Alpius said.
“We hope that in another 50 years, the same story may be told of this new Kodiak,” Hopkins said.
Rebecca Hopkins and her husband Brad are serving in Palangkaraya, Indonesia, with Mission Aviation Fellowship on one of MAF’s only float plane bases. As a pilot/mechanic, Brad serves people in the remote villages along many of the rivers of the vast island of Borneo.