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Flight instructors experience missionary aviation as a family over summer in Alaska

Gretchen and Connor Ross wear headsets in the cockpit of the CASA 212-200 high-performance turbine aircraft they flew for Samaritan’s Purse Mission Aviation Services in Alaska this past summer. (Photos provided)

Liberty University alumni Connor and Gretchen Ross, who completed their B.S. in Aeronautics: Commercial/Corporate degrees through Liberty’s School of Aeronautics (SOA) in December of 2020 and 2021, respectively, are soaring through the early years of their marriage on missionary adventures.

The couple and their son, Paul, who turned 1 over the summer, spent this past May through August flying with Samaritan’s Purse Mission Aviation Services (MAS), based out of Soldotna, Alaska.

“It was an awesome experience,” said Gretchen, who worked remotely for LUSOA’s technology innovations, flight operations, and simulator departments while tending to their son. “Only Connor served as a pilot — I flew once, just for fun — but we were there as a family, and we all enjoyed it.”

Serving alongside another pilot, Connor’s primary mission was to transport 11 couples at a time in a CASA 212-200 high-performance turbine planes from Anchorage, located 60 miles north of Soldotna, to Port Alsworth, just over 100 miles across the Cook Inlet, for Samaritan’s Purse’s week-long Operation Heal Our Patriots marriage restoration retreats.

“I was the second in command, so I would always be flying with a captain and there were two pilots per aircraft,” Connor said, noting that Samaritan’s Purse paid for the couples to fly from the mainland to Anchorage on commercial airlines. “There’s no commercial operator that will go from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, so our job was to be the final connector.”

Connor Ross rotates the propeller to the aircraft on the tarmac.

The couples, many of whom included wounded veterans, spent a whole week with counselors and chaplains, also serving as fishing and wilderness guides around Lake Clark National Park.

“The idea is to help restore wounded veterans and marriages, to give them a retreat from day-to-day life, so that they can kind of regroup their marriage and just rest, with marriage-enrichening materials and lots of prayer time,” Connor said, noting that several made first-time decisions or recommitted their lives to Christ and were baptized, while others renewed their marriage vows.

The MAS pilots would also transport doctors and trained medical staff treating those dealing with PTSD.

Connor shuttled several veterans who had experienced both flying in and skydiving out of the aircraft during their military careers.

“It was inevitable, either every week or every other week, I would always have someone ask me where the parachutes were, because they’d say, ‘I used to jump out of these airplanes all of the time,’” Connor said.

He noted that the CASA 212-200s, salvaged from another aviation operator in Africa, were perfectly suited to seat veterans with disabilities.

“We had guys who were paraplegics, missing an arm, missing both legs, creating lots of interesting flight cabin configurations there,” Connor said. “It’s a super configurable airframe for sure. ‘Casa’ is Spanish for ‘house,’ and they look like flying houses. They can do short takeoff and landing, because they have 900 horsepower on a side and two engines, they have a fixed landing gear so it’s very rugged (on) dirt and gravel (airstrips). The only limitation with them is you can’t (handle) cargo and people together. They served us very well.”

Ross communicates through the headset while monitoring the contols in flight.

Flying the high-performance aircraft also helped him meet the minimum experience requirements for most missionary aviation organizations, typically 75 flight hours with engines greater than 200 horsepower.

“We completed 101 hours, so the Lord provided well above and beyond what we needed,” Connor said.

In addition to providing shuttle support for Operation Heal Our Patriots, Connor also flew 350 miles each way with a full load of materials for a Koyuk church build near Nome, Alaska, and took another flight to a village in Marshall, in the southwestern corner of Alaska, with supplies and volunteers for a church’s ongoing Vacation Bible School. Samaritan’s Purse MAS also funded Connor’s flight of 4,000 pounds of metal containers full of supplies provided by the state to Crooked Creek, Alaska, to help villages there recover from glacial flooding.

“That’s honestly really what missionary aviation is,” Connor said of his role of providing transportation and logistical support. “Aviation’s a full-time job, so you’re not actually planting the churches or doing the evangelism. That’s too much for one person to do. You’re just supporting the people who actually are and enabling more people to go to these hard-to-reach places.”

Connor earned his master’s in Aviation Education in May and is currently pursuing his Aviation Maintenance Technician Program (AMTP) certification, which he plans to finish next December, making him even more versatile and valuable as a missionary pilot.

Gretchen, who serves as a flight tech administrator in the flight simulator department, is pursuing her master’s in Theological Studies through the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity, equipping her for evangelistic outreach as well as discipleship opportunities in the field.

Gretchen and Connor hold their 1-year-old son, Paul, beside a moose on display at a shopping center in Alaska.

Both Connor and Gretchen serve as Liberty flight instructors and are planning to return to Alaska next summer for another three-month mission after the Samaritan’s Purse Director of Mission Aviation Services Alaska invited them back.

“Samaritan’s Purse took good care of us,” Connor said, noting that it provided his family housing, food, and a paycheck on top of the experience of their lives.

This past summer’s trip was not the Ross family’s first missionary travels together and it will not be their last.

“We went to Africa in 2021 just after we got married, which was awesome,” Connor said. “We would 100 percent go back there or 100 percent go back to Alaska. We are open to both options, and if they would offer us a full-time position, we probably would say, ‘Yes.’ Only the Lord knows.”

 

Views of mountains and bodies of water while flying over sections of Alaska served as testaments of God’s creative power.
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