Bob Griffin

The only time many of us would get an airplane stopped in 300 feet would be to snag a wire on a carrier deck or forget to put the gear down. But Bob Griffin routinely landed his Helio Courier on short and narrow strips in the jungles of South America and the Philippines as part of his missionary work with JAARS - the Jungle Aviation And Radio Service - and was often met by tribes of headshrinkers ... and we don't mean psychoanalysts. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Bob about logging 7,000 hours as a missionary aviator, the history of JAARS, Helio Couriers, and Bob's friend Gordon Baxter.


ProfileRobert Griffin was born July 30,1924, on a farm near Saint John, Wash. He grew up on another farm near Pullman,Wash., took his first flight with his father and identical-twin brother in aBoeing Mailplane, and learned to fly during high school in a J-3 Cub. After hisfirst year of college, Bob attended a presentation by Neal and Jane Nellis, whohad translated the Bible for the Zapotec people of southern Mexico. By then Bobknew he wanted to pursue flying, and when he heard that WycliffeBible Translators needed pilots to fly missionaries into the remote junglesof south America, he had found his life’s work.

JAARS — the Jungle Aviation And Radio Service— was being formed and, after a few years of broadcast training and Bible studyin Oregon and Chicago, Bob flew to the factory to take delivery of Helio Courierserial #22. He flew it to Ecuador in 1956, arriving just weeks after five fellowmissionaries had been murdered by a local tribe. Over the next 15 years, Boblogged over 7,000 hours ferrying passengers, food, medicine, supplies andmissionaries into landing swaths cut from the jungles of South America and thePhilippines, logging over half of that time in Helio Couriers. For 25 years, Bobwas a regular at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, telling his story and flying the HelioCourier demo. In 1998, Bob published Clearedfor Takeoff: 49 Stories from the Pen of a Jungle Pilot. OSH is where Bobmet the legendary Flyingcolumnist Gordon Baxter, and began a friendship that would last until Baxbecame too ill to write back. Bob hung up his wings a few years ago to become Coordinator forInternational Relations for JAARS, and lives in Waxhaw, N.C. As usual, Baxcoined the perfect phrase when he said of Bob’s work: "You can’t take itwith you, but you can send it ahead."

Tell us about growing up.

My twin brother and I were six weeks premature, and the doc delivered us athome and used the oven of our old wood stove as an incubator. When I was about ayear old my folks moved to the eastern part of the state, near Pullman, acollege town about 80 miles south of Spokane. By the time I was a teenager wewere dry-land farming 900 acres — half wheat and half summer fallow. My dad wasone of the early farmers to begin growing dried peas, which are used to makesplit pea soup. After that we had roughly half the farm in wheat and the otherhalf in peas. We used lots of heavy machinery and by the time I was in my middleteens I was already operating and overhauling diesels and other farm machines.As a kid I thought I was king of the hill when I was running that bigCaterpillar.

I’ve been hooked on flying since I was a kid. My father would like to havelearned to fly, but his health had been ruined in WWI. We spent a lot of Sundayafternoons hanging on the airport fence looking at airplanes. I remember aflying service owned by two brothers at the Lewiston, Idaho airport that flew CessnaAirmasters. We drooled over those and I’ve always loved that airplane. I wasprobably 12 when I had my first airplane ride in a Boeing40 B-4 Mailplane. It seemed immense, especially to a little kid. The pilothad a cockpit aft, there was a big bin for the mail, and a forward cabin thatheld four people for any intrepid passengers wanting to ride along with themail. Money was scarce, and it cost $5 a ride, but my dad scraped togetherenough for the three of us to go. I still vividly remember that flight. It wasmarvelous.

When we were teenagers, 10 of us got together and bought an airplane, ahangar and an office for $1,000 — $100 each — from a CFI named McDonald. I hadsoloed with a different instructor, but Mac really taught me how to fly, fromthe private through the commercial. I got all my ratings through commercial andCFI in a J-3 Cub. Radios? What were they? I suspect Mac didn’t know either. Ididn’t know anything about instruments — apart from oil pressure, airspeed anda compass.

How did you find out about becoming a missionary pilot?

My brother and I had finished one year of college — we rode to school on anold flathead Harley — when the war heated up in ’42. I had been active in theInter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on campus, and a couple came to speak to ourBible study group on Friday night. They were Bible translators, and they told ushow they had learned a language that had never been written down by convertingit to phonetic symbols. Once they understood the language they developed analphabet, and then began to translate. Amazed that that this was possible Ithought this would be something worth giving your life to. From early on I had afeeling that I still can’t define that I should become some sort of"Christian worker." The next day I talked to them for a couple ofhours. When they found out I was a pilot they became very interested and told methat Wycliffe was praying for pilots. To tell you why I need to give you somehistory.

A pioneer missionary, Cameron Townsend, had started a Bible translationprogram — which came to be called Wycliffe Bible Translators — in Mexico inthe mid-’30s. It started with about 30 tribal groups and expanded to over 100.Later Peru’s Minister of Education learned how Mexico’s illiterate minoritieswere learning to read — becoming bilingual in their own language and Spanish —and getting educations that helped them become productive citizens. What we weredoing in Bible translation was of little import to him, though major to us, ofcourse. He issued an invitation to work with their tribal people. Townsend soonsent missionaries, but some nearly lost their lives in dangerous rapids andhacking through the jungle. Townsend decided it was too dangerous to send peoplethere without the support of airplanes and radio communications. With that JAARSwas born — its mandate to serve the Bible translators. I was profoundly excitedto learn I could be a missionary and fly too.

You mentioned that you had been invited to Peru. Did JAARS ever goanywhere that you weren’t invited to?

  mountain airstrip
  Field in sight. Elev. 5,000′ MSL. 500′ long X variable width 20′-30′; Dirt, rocks. Caution: wind shear, severe dropoff both sides.

No, we always went into a country at the invitation and support of the educationofficials of that country, usually the Ministry of Education. We also didsomething unusual for a missionary group — when we arrived we donated ouraircraft to the country, we operated them to do our work, and when we left theairplanes stayed behind.

How were you received when you arrived?

Generally with open arms, but now and again we had some challenges. You haveto remember that many of these jungle people had a history of less than happyinteraction with outsiders so were understandably suspicious and at timeshostile. You had to gain their trust and confidence, at times a long anddifficult process.

I’ll never forget when, in late ’56, Frank Drown asked me to fly him to atiny airstrip in eastern Ecuador. We knew it was dangerous because five of ourmissionary friends had been speared to death only a few weeks earlier and a fewmiles away. The tribes in the area had been headshrinkers for generations, andproudly displayed their collections of shrunken heads. It was also dangerousbecause I didn’t have much experience in jungle flying, I hadn’t logged a lot oftime in the Helio Courier, and I had to get into a tiny landing strip whittledout of tall jungle trees. We flew over the airstrip, Frank dropped some gifts tothe Jivaros below, and pretty soon the airstrip was full of happy peoplewaving and ready to welcome us. Deciding all was okay, I circled around to makethe approach. On short final, and committed to land we couldn’t see a soul. Theyhad all disappeared. Not a good sign, especially after the recent killings. Aswe touched down and braked to a quick stop, four guys jumped out of the treeswaving guns and doing a little dance, screaming at us to leave. Frank had neverbeen there before, but he knew the language. He started walking back down theairstrip toward them shouting "I’m your friend Panchu," a derivationof Pancho, his name in Spanish. I stood by the airplane with the engine idling,praying and wondering what I would do if he got shot — should I go drag himback or just take off in a hurry?

Then the mood changed. They recognized and accepted him and he got hugs andback slaps all around, so I shut down the engine and went over to meet them. TheChief was named Tsantiacu, a derivation of Santiago. He hugged me and I wasnever so happy to get a hug. Then the mood changed again. The Chief steppedback, gave us a piercing gaze and asked "Why were you shooting at us?"We said "Shooting? We weren’t shooting at you." Then I realized thatthey had heard the engine backfire when I cut the power on final, and thought itwas gunfire.

How did the tribal people react to the concept of flying?

To put it in today’s vernacular, they thought it was pretty cool. They had noidea what an automobile, a train, or even a bicycle was, but they readilyadapted to the "canoe that flies," and quickly learned the advantagesof flying. We calculated roughly that a minute in the air equaled about sevenhours of slogging the muddy trails. They also came to appreciate the supplies wecould bring to them — salt, sugar and aluminum roofing, to name but a few—things that they could not move in larger quantities by foot, or even by dugoutcanoe. We also often carried their produce out to market which happily improvedtheir standard of living. I especially enjoyed hauling a load of cinnamon bark.It smelled so good.

  Griffin (R) and Bible translator Bub Borman (second from L) with colorful Cofan friends in eastern Ecuador. This trip took three weeks by canoe vs. 1:15 in the air.

Believing that as Christian I was a servant, and my missionary plane was anextension of that service, I made it available to anyone in the jungle thatneeded help. During those days in Ecuador I became good friends with theEcuadorian Army Major who had oversight over all the eastern jungle — all thecountry that laid east of the Andes. One day he asked if I could fly supplies tohis troops assigned to the remote outposts on the border. All attempts tore-supply them by dugout canoes via the rivers had ended in disaster. Theheavily laden canoes rolled over in the rapids. His men were on the point ofstarvation. Could I help? "Con mucho gusto mi Mayor." I told him. Soontheir 6X6s backed up to our hangar to unload mountains of rice, beans, flour,salt and sugar. One look at my little Helio said it would take lots of trips toget to the bottom of that pile.

The day came a couple years later when the Major was transferred to a newposting. He had to leave the place and people he had grown to love. With sorrowwritten all over his face he came to ask if I would be the one to fly him fromthe jungle to Quito. "Claro, Me daria mucho placer el poder sevirle miMayor." "Of course," I told him. "It will give me muchpleasure to serve you." I felt honored and pleased. I knew he had threeother means of transport available to him, but it was with me, his friend, hewanted to share his tears and sorrow. It was on that flight that he turned to meand asked what can be loosely translated as, "don Roberto, I want to knowwhat makes you tick. I know you could be earning lots of money flying for anairline in the States, or some other well-paying job. Why is it that youimpoverish yourself to come here to the jungle to help us?"

Impoverish? Hardly. We are paid in a coin that is not of this realm! But,more importantly, I had waited three years for the invitation to tell him thejoy I had serving him and to tell him that because of what God had done for methrough his Son, I was motivated to share that love. I explained how, throughsimply believing what God told me through His Word, I accepted the gift of hisSon, the Lord Jesus Christ, as my Saviour. I talked only 10 or 15 minutes thenwe looked at some verses from one of the Spanish New Testaments I always carriedin the plane to give as gifts to passengers. First we found the perennialfavorite, John 3:16. I asked him to read it out loud to me, "Porque de talmanera amo Dios al mundo, que dio a su Hijo unigento…" hebegan…"For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so thatanyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." Iturned to look at him, surprised to see tears spilling down his cheeks. Withboth hands, he grabbed my arm. "Roberto, mi amigo, that’s what Iwant!" There, flying among the snow-capped Andes, Major Rio Frio easilyentered the realm of the born-again ones.

Since that time I’ve often reflected that it took the transport of tons ofrice and beans, flour, sugar and salt to earn the credibility for thattestimony. It proves the truth of the old adage, "What you are speaks soloud I can’t hear what you say."

What was your first experience with the Helio Courier?

I picked up our first one at the factory in 1955 … serial #22. Very fewpeople knew much about flying them, including the people that were making them.For instance, their test pilot taught me to land with brakes locked. After all,you want to land short don’t you? But after some 80 hours of demonstrationflying Stateside before I took it abroad I found a broken a brace on the maingear. We learned that it’s okay to brake down hard but don’t land regularly withbrakes locked.

The learning curve of flying that airplane in our environment was prettysteep, and our flight manual was a little book with eight pages. I startedlearning by flying to several dedication ceremonies around the U.S. for about 80hours.

Is that still the airplane of choice for high-altitude short-field work?

  Helio takeoff
  Bob demonstrated the Helio Courier’s STOL characteristics for more than 25 years at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and air shows up and down the eastern seaboard.

Yes, but there are some problems in obtaining them. I’ll say something aboutthat in a moment. We’re also using Cessna 206s with the Robertson STOL mod. Andwe flew a Pilatus in Nepal simply because we couldn’t get avgas but there was noshortage of jet fuel. The Pilatus is a good performer but it has some seriousdrawbacks. It has a large cabin but on a long flight you sacrifice a lot ofpayload to carry the fuel you need. But it’s not very fast. Once you get beyondthe good takeoff numbers and the ability to put the prop in beta and stop itshort, the airplane doesn’t have a lot to offer. One nice thing about the Heliois that it cleans up aerodynamically to give a decent cruise, and it’s still ourairplane of choice.

It handles heavy loads out of altitude very well. I took off from a strip at9,000′ MSL well over gross — I’m not saying how much — but I was shocked whenwe unloaded and weighed it! That’s when I started carrying a fish scale in theairplane. The airplane got off the ground very well. Climb was slowed, ofcourse. I often say, "So you double the takeoff run, it’ll still only be600 or 800 feet!"

The Courier has been an orphan since the early ’70s, so we’re manufacturingsome of our own parts now. Dave Maytag and friends have the type certificate at HelioAircraft Co. in Bristol, Tenn., and they’re talking about getting back intoproduction. They’ve asked us for some suggestions to improve the design andwe’ve been happy to comply.

Give us some examples of your suggestions.

We change all the seats to our own crash-resistant seat that we developedwith NASA Langley’s help. We also install Brownline seat rails so seats stay inplace in the event of an accident. The Helio was designed to be crashworthy butwe want to make it better. We’ve also added a flange on the lower end of themains so the gear is interchangeable. You used to have to carry a spare left anda spare right. We’ve beefed up the gear, too, because in extremely short-fieldwork we often touch down a little heavier just to get down and stopped. The gearon the Helio is pretty soft, thanks to Eddie Stinson’s early design — you don’tbounce much in a Helio — you touch down, the gear splats out and that’s it.JAARS has a Courier we labeled the Grey Goose that we’ve experimented with. Forexample we’ve picked up about seven knots in cruise by redesigning the cowlingand the fairings. Several years ago we obtained a gaggle of surplus Helios fromGovernment excess property. The Goose is one, the remaining have either beenrebuilt and sent abroad or parted out.

We’ve modified the cargo door, added a fire detection system and fuel systemmods and added a cargo pod designed and built by our friend Tom Hamilton ofGlasair design fame. Before we installed pods, we often volumed out the cabinwith passengers and cargo well short of gross. Tom has been a good friend and awhile back he asked us to suggest the perfect airplane for our kind ofshort-field work. We gave him our wish list — for instance, a 200-mph cruisespeed and a touchdown speed of 30 mph — and he’s about ready to start cuttingmetal for it. It won’t be our "dream" airplane, but it will comeclose. Now we’re looking for an engine that doesn’t burn avgas, because where wego avgas is too hard to get or too expensive.

You were a close friend of Gordon Baxter. Give us a good Bax story.

I remember the first time I met Bax. I had enjoyed reading his stuff for along time, and always turned to him first when a new copy of Flyingcame. So when his book, "Bax Seat, the log of a pasture pilot," cameout I got an early copy. Some of his pieces really cracked me up and I stillbreak out laughing at some of his antics. I think my favorite is when he wasgoing to take his flaming-haired prospective son-in-law for a ride in theStearman. Especially the line, "Its locked wheels rumpling up the sod likea cheap carpet…" What a word picture!

In ’79 he had a booth at OSH selling his book. I happened on it during mywanderings when I was able to get away from our JAARS booth. I was a presencefor JAARS at OSH for more than 25 years with the Helio Courier, "Ol’ No.One," and a booth. "Oh, Bax," I said, "I wish I had knownyou were going to be here. I’d have brought my book for you to sign," andproceeded to tell how much I had enjoyed it and had appreciated his writing fora long time. "No problem," he answered, "give me a piece ofpaper," and forthwith he wrote a dedication. "Cut that out and pasteit in your book when you get home." I did and it’s still there.

Then we got to talking of our mutual joy in flight and what it meant to us,and I mentioned one of the things I enjoyed the most was getting to altitudewhere I could see all of God’s universe spread out below and see the little toydoll houses and the cars too, crawling along like ants. And people? Not visible.It often caused me to reflect on what the Psalmist wrote: "What is man thatthou art mindful of him…" Or as a modern translation has it, "Icannot understand how you can bother with mere puny man, to pay any attention tohim." I said it boggled my mind that God could care for all us little antspecks down here on earth. "Wow," said Bax, "Where’s that foundin the Bible?" So I gave him chapter and verse — Psalms 8:4 — and thatstarted our conversation down a spiritual track and began a friendship thatendured for many years.

I still revel in his use of the language. He could be so funny and still geta serious point across. When I’m down I sometimes pull Bax from the shelf for apickup and he’s always good for a laugh.

Is there a place in JAARS for someone who would like to contribute to thissort of work, but can’t do it full-time?

  Helio USS Kearsarge
  The Helio Courier "Ang Diwa Ng Pontiac" (Taglaog for "Spirit of Pontiac") rests aboard the USS Kearsarge for its delivery to the Philippines as part of the US Navy’s "Hands Across the Sea" program. No, Griffin didn’t land on the carrier — but he could have!

Absolutely. At our home base, the JAARS Center in Waxhaw, N.C., we have a lot ofjobs that need doing. Short-term or long-term we can use aircraft mechanics,avionics specialists, computer specialists, auto and truck mechanics, telephonetechnicians, secretaries, buyers and shippers to just start the list. Somepeople come for a week or two, others for longer. There’s always plenty to do.Some might want to go abroad and that can usually be worked out. We often sendout work parties for special projects but going on those is usually arranged onan individual basis depending on individual skills and what the project is.There’s around 600 working at the Center right now. Wycliffe overall —worldwide — numbers some 6,000.

Can pilots participate in that?

We can accept a volunteer to do almost anything except fly. That’s becausepilots need special orientation for the environment they’ll be flying in. Ourpilots are front-line people. Some ability in diplomacy is a real plus. Theyhave to know the language, the culture, the terrain, and have a feel for theweather where reports are often few and far between. All that can’t be learnedovernight. You’ve got to be more than a kick-the-tire-light-the-fire guy.

What are the minimums JAARS accepts and what special orientation do theyget?

Pilots need a minimum of 500 hours with a commercial and instrument rating,and an A & P. There are a few schools around the U.S. that specialize intraining missionary aviators, and we’re getting most of our people there. But welike our pilots to spend a year or two after graduation working in privateindustry, to give them a dose of the work ethic. Sometimes an applicant will askabout the benefit package we offer, and I usually answer "Eternity."

Once a candidate is approved he can expect to spend three months at the JAARSCenter where, in my words, we put a little whipped cream and a cherry on top.There are classes on various subjects, they fly at least 40 hours of orientationto short fields and mountain flying, learn how to land on strips that run up theside of the mountain, make drops, both free and parachute, work in the hangar onthe equipment they will be operating on the field and in general put a littlespit and polish on what was already a fine pilot and/or mechanic. Constructionand maintenance people do the same thing in their field as do computerapplicants. What we do is specialized enough that it requires some solidpreparation.

We’d be thrilled to have folks come and help. There’s still lots to do —some 3,000 languages still unwritten and millions of benighted people. It’s amind-boggling task and a cause worthy of our best.

How has your flying career impacted your faith and vice versa?

  cleared for takeoff
  Order a copy of "Cleared for Takeoff" through JAARS

I think that faith in God and His promises can be compared to learning to fly.If you intend to fly you must commit yourself to the airplane with faith that itwill fly. I never had a problem believing that God would honor his promises as Inever doubted the efficacy of my Helio’s wings to provide lift. Afterthree-quarters of a century of walking with God, I’m even more certain. I thinkI could liken it to becoming familiar with a new aircraft. At first your controlinputs are tentative but as you learn its parameters and grow in your knowledgeof its capabilities, you find you can put more faith in it. At last you put iton like an old shoe. You feel at home. I think that’s the way my faith haschanged over the years. It’s grown and blossomed. God hasn’t changed, but Ihave, in my capacity to understand His will and His ways.

It’s been a blessing to see my wife’s faith grow also. I’ll never forget heranswer when we were speaking to a Stateside audience and they had questions. Alady asked, "How did you feel about trusting the Lord for your husband’ssafety when he was out there flying over the jungle? "Well," sheresponded, "If He can’t take care of him over the jungle He can’t take careof him on these highways in the States which I think are a whole lot moredangerous!" Bless her heart, she never doubted, or if she did she never leton to me. But I’m convinced she was as certain as I that we were in the centerof God’s will for us. She was my partner in more ways than one!!

I love airplanes and I love flying, but I love even more the good the Lordhas let us accomplish with them. It’s true that some of what we do is difficultand often dangerous but in over 50 years of flying in some of the world’s mostinhospitable terrain, JAARS has had only one accident with fatalities. We workhard at safety and do our own maintenance to the Nth degree, and we pilots honeour abilities like carrier pilots for short-field landings and the ability tofly the particular airplane we are operating to the outer edges of its envelopesafely, with special emphasis on the low-speed side.

I’m blessed to have seen the airplane used as a powerful, life-changing toolfor the greatest possible good imaginable. I’ve seen people’s lives changeforever — and I mean FOREVER. Headhunters, headshrinkers, and killers doing a180 in their lifestyle — it’s called repentance — because we carried theGospel to places that would be unreachable by any other means. That’stremendously satisfying. Watch that happen day after day and your faith has togrow. God has allowed us to use airplanes to do a job that could not have gottendone without them.

Thanks to Ed Hamlin for suggesting Mr. Griffin.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, pleasesend an Email to Joe Godfrey.