Aeronautics alumnus excels in Africa
Jeff Burnham, a pilot working for Flying Mission Services in Botswana, advances up the aviation ranks
The Liberty University School of Aeronautics is a different place than it was when Jeff Burnham left for Botswana. A 2009 graduate of Liberty, Burnham now works as a pilot for Flying Mission Services (FMS), a mission organization that uses aviation to fund Christian ministries in the southern part of Africa.
Burnham recently upgraded to the role of captain and designated pilot examiner in Botswana, which gives him the ability to issue the required test for people who want to get their pilot’s license in Botswana.
“I never, ever thought that I would be an examiner,” Burnham said. “I was asked to do it. Flying Mission didn’t have guys with instructing experience, and I had three years of instructing here at Liberty under my belt.”
FMS provides charter and passenger flights, but according to Burnham, about 90 percent of the flights that FMS makes are air-ambulance flights transporting people in need of immediate healthcare to a hospital. The organization also has pastors who visit patients in the hospital and provide discipleship and evangelism.
“The pilots fly and make the money, and that goes directly back into the HIV/AIDS work, orphan care work, discipleship evangelism there in Africa,” Burnham said.
He said that the also enjoys the dual nature of his job, both flying and contributing to the ministry.
“I wholeheartedly view what I do as ministry,” Burnham said. “Not only are you helping to impact the ministry that we have there, but the flying that you do is very rewarding. You’re changing people’s lives.”
Burnham returned to Liberty at the beginning of November while on furlough to work on his Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate, and he will return home to Botswana in December. Burnham said that the ATP is the next step in the pilot certification process for him, and it allows him to captain bigger planes.
As chief of flight training for FMS, Burnham’s job involves recruiting and training new pilots, and he said that he hopes to attract some Liberty students to join the organization.
“(We are looking for) as many as we can get, really,” Burnham said. “(FMS) is growing at a very fast rate, and we’re gradually losing staff with no staff coming to replace (the losses).”
Despite its seemingly constant need for new pilots, FMS has increased the amount of work that it takes on.
“The mission organization has grown a lot while I’ve been there,” Burnham said. “I’m hoping that a lot of these seniors catch the vision and come over to Flying Mission Services in Africa.”
After returning to Liberty’s hangar at the Lynchburg Regional Airport, Burnham realized how much things have changed at the School of Aeronautics. Liberty has made many improvements since his departure for Botswana, including new planes, upgraded office buildings and the ongoing improvements on Liberty’s main campus.
“It’s amazing,” Burnham said. “The new aviation buildings are incredible. All the classes are out at the airport now, which blows my mind. That’s what we wanted while I was here, and it never happened. It’s incredible that everything has been taken to the next level.”
Burnham said that, coming out of college, he wanted to work for an airline flying bigger planes, but God drew him to missions. His parents, Gracia and the late Martin Burnham, were also missionaries.
“I’m very content with what I’m doing, and not once have I felt like I made a mistake,” Burnham said. “At times, you can look at the jets and think, ‘Aw, man, that would be cool to go do that.’ But I get to do some cool flying, and I’m happy with what we’re doing.”
According to a Liberty Journal article about Jeff Burnham, his father was a missions pilot in the Philippines, but his parents were kidnapped by the militant Abu Sayyaf Group in 2001, and his father was killed in a firefight. Despite what happened, Jeff Burnham still decided to pursue missions.
“Even right after it happened, I wouldn’t say that it drove me away at all,” Jeff Burnham said. “If anything, it drove me closer to the Lord and showed me the need for missions. If anything, it made it more clear how important it was.”
Although Burnham and his wife, Sarah, experienced some culture shock living in Botswana, they have learned to accept the differences.
“We had to overcome that hump and stick it out,” Burnham. “We can’t change the country. We’re not going to change the culture, so we need to just continue to be patient.”
Jeff and Sarah Burnham have lived in Botswana for over a year along with their children, 2-year-old Tristan and 2-month-old Vanessa.
Jeff Burnham has flown to many places throughout southern Africa, including Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa and Namibia.
“God has led us in a different direction than I thought when I first came, and we’re excited with the work that has gone on in Botswana,” Burnham said. “We will continue to serve there.”