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Pilot project

Missions | A new missionary plane may revolutionize ministry to the underdeveloped world

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

Missionary pilot Dave Voetmann spent a quarter-century looking for places to touch down amid the jungles and deserts of Africa. Now, he has found a permanent airstrip in the open spaces of Sandpoint, Idaho. It's there that Voetmann landed his beloved Quest Aircraft Company and set out creating a plane to reach every tribe and tongue.

The Kodiak, a rugged, single-propeller bush plane, will hit the market this summer at $1.3 million. With pre-orders approaching 100, Voetmann is scrambling to double his manufacturing plant's current production capacity of one per week.

Such demand does not surprise the seasoned aviator, who designed the Kodiak specifically to solve the frustrations of missionary pilots. Voetmann, 72, understands the need to land on narrow and treacherous strips of terrain. He knows all too well the maddening inability to lift off from tight quarters with a full load. "I had to leave people and cargo behind repeatedly, because I just didn't have room," he recalls. "That was a daily occurrence."

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In 10,000 hours of flights, mostly over unmapped territories, Voetmann never crashed a plane. But he did push existing technology to the brink of its capabilities. Three times he destroyed propellers when bumpy landings pushed the nose of his aircraft too close to the ground. Rainy conditions only exacerbate problems for Cessna's Caravan model, a popular choice among missionary pilots. "It's too heavy," Voetmann says. "I'd bury it in the mud until you couldn't see what color it was." The only planes ever specifically designed for missionary or humanitarian use in undeveloped backcountry ceased manufacture decades ago.

After his 25 years as a full-time pilot, Voetmann spent 18 more fundraising and maintaining the air fleet for Idaho-based Mission Aviation Fellowship. Much of that time went to locating and repairing old Beavers and Otters, aircraft models long since out of production. The challenges of that enterprise pushed him to create something new. "You can only rebuild a '58 Chevy so many times," he said.

The Kodiak is no broken-down Chevy. Weighing a svelte 3,450 pounds and ratcheting up to 750 horsepower at takeoff, it needs just 700 feet to get into the air and 750 feet to come back down. It can carry a 3,350-pound load between its 10-seat cabin and expanded cargo pod. Its turbine engine runs on jet fuel, far cheaper and more available than the aviation fuel used in most small planes. Its propeller is 19 inches off the ground, more than twice as high as the Caravan's prop. What's more, the Kodiak is fast.

JAARS, a North Carolina-based organization providing aviation services to Bible translators around the world, considers the plane "the ideal missionary aircraft." Other missionary aviators have called it an answer to prayer.

Voetmann estimates that about 800 planes worldwide deliver supplies and personnel to remote mission camps on a daily or semi-daily basis. The Kodiak figures to replace a substantial portion of that fleet, ensuring a highly profitable future in that market alone. But other businesses and individuals have taken an interest in the versatile aircraft, too. Voetmann estimates that Quest could reel in as much as $40 million in profits per year, all of which will funnel back into various ministries.

That economic model of establishing Quest as a self-sustaining charitable trust endeared Voetmann to Christian business leaders when he began seeking startup money in 2000. He raised more than $40 million from donors interested only in spreading Christianity. He turned down $20 million from venture capitalists seeking a profit.

To keep production costs low, Voetmann brought on an unpaid board of directors, including former Alaska Airlines president and chairman Bruce Kennedy. On top of agreeing to receive no financial compensation for their work, many board members contributed large sums to the project.

Originally inspired to become a missionary pilot in 1956 after hearing a radio report that Nate Saint and his team of evangelists were missing in South America, Voetmann believes the Kodiak will outdo his previous 40-plus years of work in honoring Saint's legacy and carrying the gospel to the margins. "This project will carry on long after I'm dead and gone and will be more strategic than anything I've ever done," he said.

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