Bob Griffin

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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 a Boeing Mailplane, and learned to fly during high school in a J-3 Cub. After his first year of college, Bob attended a presentation by Neal and Jane Nellis, who had translated the Bible for the Zapotec people of southern Mexico. By then Bob knew he wanted to pursue flying, and when he heard that Wycliffe Bible Translators needed pilots to fly missionaries into the remote jungles of 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 study in Oregon and Chicago, Bob flew to the factory to take delivery of Helio Courier serial #22. He flew it to Ecuador in 1956, arriving just weeks after five fellow missionaries had been murdered by a local tribe. Over the next 15 years, Bob logged over 7,000 hours ferrying passengers, food, medicine, supplies and missionaries into landing swaths cut from the jungles of South America and the Philippines, logging over half of that time in Helio Couriers. For 25 years, Bob was a regular at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, telling his story and flying the Helio Courier demo. In 1998, Bob published Cleared for Takeoff: 49 Stories from the Pen of a Jungle Pilot. OSH is where Bob met the legendary Flying columnist Gordon Baxter, and began a friendship that would last until Bax became too ill to write back. Bob hung up his wings a few years ago to become Coordinator for International Relations for JAARS, and lives in Waxhaw, N.C. As usual, Bax coined the perfect phrase when he said of Bob's work: "You can't take it with 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 at home and used the oven of our old wood stove as an incubator. When I was about a year old my folks moved to the eastern part of the state, near Pullman, a college town about 80 miles south of Spokane. By the time I was a teenager we were dry-land farming 900 acres — half wheat and half summer fallow. My dad was one of the early farmers to begin growing dried peas, which are used to make split pea soup. After that we had roughly half the farm in wheat and the other half in peas. We used lots of heavy machinery and by the time I was in my middle teens 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 big Caterpillar.

I've been hooked on flying since I was a kid. My father would like to have learned to fly, but his health had been ruined in WWI. We spent a lot of Sunday afternoons hanging on the airport fence looking at airplanes. I remember a flying service owned by two brothers at the Lewiston, Idaho airport that flew Cessna Airmasters. We drooled over those and I've always loved that airplane. I was probably 12 when I had my first airplane ride in a Boeing 40 B-4 Mailplane. It seemed immense, especially to a little kid. The pilot had a cockpit aft, there was a big bin for the mail, and a forward cabin that held four people for any intrepid passengers wanting to ride along with the mail. Money was scarce, and it cost $5 a ride, but my dad scraped together enough for the three of us to go. I still vividly remember that flight. It was marvelous.

When we were teenagers, 10 of us got together and bought an airplane, a hangar and an office for $1,000 — $100 each — from a CFI named McDonald. I had soloed with a different instructor, but Mac really taught me how to fly, from the private through the commercial. I got all my ratings through commercial and CFI in a J-3 Cub. Radios? What were they? I suspect Mac didn't know either. I didn't know anything about instruments — apart from oil pressure, airspeed and a 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 an old flathead Harley — when the war heated up in '42. I had been active in the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on campus, and a couple came to speak to our Bible study group on Friday night. They were Bible translators, and they told us how they had learned a language that had never been written down by converting it to phonetic symbols. Once they understood the language they developed an alphabet, and then began to translate. Amazed that that this was possible I thought this would be something worth giving your life to. From early on I had a feeling 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 of hours. When they found out I was a pilot they became very interested and told me that Wycliffe was praying for pilots. To tell you why I need to give you some history.

A pioneer missionary, Cameron Townsend, had started a Bible translation program — which came to be called Wycliffe Bible Translators — in Mexico in the 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 minorities were learning to read — becoming bilingual in their own language and Spanish — and getting educations that helped them become productive citizens. What we were doing in Bible translation was of little import to him, though major to us, of course. He issued an invitation to work with their tribal people. Townsend soon sent missionaries, but some nearly lost their lives in dangerous rapids and hacking through the jungle. Townsend decided it was too dangerous to send people there without the support of airplanes and radio communications. With that JAARS was born — its mandate to serve the Bible translators. I was profoundly excited to learn I could be a missionary and fly too.

You mentioned that you had been invited to Peru. Did JAARS ever go anywhere 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 education officials of that country, usually the Ministry of Education. We also did something unusual for a missionary group — when we arrived we donated our aircraft to the country, we operated them to do our work, and when we left the airplanes stayed behind.

How were you received when you arrived?

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

I'll never forget when, in late '56, Frank Drown asked me to fly him to a tiny airstrip in eastern Ecuador. We knew it was dangerous because five of our missionary friends had been speared to death only a few weeks earlier and a few miles away. The tribes in the area had been headshrinkers for generations, and proudly displayed their collections of shrunken heads. It was also dangerous because I didn't have much experience in jungle flying, I hadn't logged a lot of time in the Helio Courier, and I had to get into a tiny landing strip whittled out of tall jungle trees. We flew over the airstrip, Frank dropped some gifts to the Ji´varos below, and pretty soon the airstrip was full of happy people waving and ready to welcome us. Deciding all was okay, I circled around to make the approach. On short final, and committed to land we couldn't see a soul. They had all disappeared. Not a good sign, especially after the recent killings. As we touched down and braked to a quick stop, four guys jumped out of the trees waving guns and doing a little dance, screaming at us to leave. Frank had never been there before, but he knew the language. He started walking back down the airstrip toward them shouting "I'm your friend Panchu," a derivation of 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 him back or just take off in a hurry?

Then the mood changed. They recognized and accepted him and he got hugs and back slaps all around, so I shut down the engine and went over to meet them. The Chief was named Tsantiacu, a derivation of Santiago. He hugged me and I was never so happy to get a hug. Then the mood changed again. The Chief stepped back, 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 that they had heard the engine backfire when I cut the power on final, and thought it was 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 no idea what an automobile, a train, or even a bicycle was, but they readily adapted to the "canoe that flies," and quickly learned the advantages of flying. We calculated roughly that a minute in the air equaled about seven hours of slogging the muddy trails. They also came to appreciate the supplies we could 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 dugout canoe. We also often carried their produce out to market which happily improved their 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 an extension of that service, I made it available to anyone in the jungle that needed help. During those days in Ecuador I became good friends with the Ecuadorian Army Major who had oversight over all the eastern jungle — all the country that laid east of the Andes. One day he asked if I could fly supplies to his troops assigned to the remote outposts on the border. All attempts to re-supply them by dugout canoes via the rivers had ended in disaster. The heavily laden canoes rolled over in the rapids. His men were on the point of starvation. Could I help? "Con mucho gusto mi Mayor." I told him. Soon their 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 to get to the bottom of that pile.

The day came a couple years later when the Major was transferred to a new posting. He had to leave the place and people he had grown to love. With sorrow written all over his face he came to ask if I would be the one to fly him from the jungle to Quito. "Claro, Me dari´a mucho placer el poder sevirle mi Mayor." "Of course," I told him. "It will give me much pleasure to serve you." I felt honored and pleased. I knew he had three other means of transport available to him, but it was with me, his friend, he wanted to share his tears and sorrow. It was on that flight that he turned to me and asked what can be loosely translated as, "don Roberto, I want to know what makes you tick. I know you could be earning lots of money flying for an airline in the States, or some other well-paying job. Why is it that you impoverish 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 the joy I had serving him and to tell him that because of what God had done for me through his Son, I was motivated to share that love. I explained how, through simply believing what God told me through His Word, I accepted the gift of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as my Saviour. I talked only 10 or 15 minutes then we looked at some verses from one of the Spanish New Testaments I always carried in the plane to give as gifts to passengers. First we found the perennial favorite, John 3:16. I asked him to read it out loud to me, "Porque de tal manera amo´ Dios al mundo, que dio´ a su Hijo unigento..." he began..."For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that anyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." I turned to look at him, surprised to see tears spilling down his cheeks. With both hands, he grabbed my arm. "Roberto, mi amigo, that's what I want!" There, flying among the snow-capped Andes, Major Rio Frio easily entered the realm of the born-again ones.

Since that time I've often reflected that it took the transport of tons of rice and beans, flour, sugar and salt to earn the credibility for that testimony. It proves the truth of the old adage, "What you are speaks so loud 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 few people 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 demonstration flying Stateside before I took it abroad I found a broken a brace on the main gear. We learned that it's okay to brake down hard but don't land regularly with brakes locked.

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

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 about that in a moment. We're also using Cessna 206s with the Robertson STOL mod. And we flew a Pilatus in Nepal simply because we couldn't get avgas but there was no shortage of jet fuel. The Pilatus is a good performer but it has some serious drawbacks. It has a large cabin but on a long flight you sacrifice a lot of payload to carry the fuel you need. But it's not very fast. Once you get beyond the good takeoff numbers and the ability to put the prop in beta and stop it short, the airplane doesn't have a lot to offer. One nice thing about the Helio is that it cleans up aerodynamically to give a decent cruise, and it's still our airplane of choice.

It handles heavy loads out of altitude very well. I took off from a strip at 9,000' MSL well over gross — I'm not saying how much — but I was shocked when we unloaded and weighed it! That's when I started carrying a fish scale in the airplane. The airplane got off the ground very well. Climb was slowed, of course. I often say, "So you double the takeoff run, it'll still only be 600 or 800 feet!"

The Courier has been an orphan since the early '70s, so we're manufacturing some of our own parts now. Dave Maytag and friends have the type certificate at Helio Aircraft Co. in Bristol, Tenn., and they're talking about getting back into production. They've asked us for some suggestions to improve the design and we'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 developed with NASA Langley's help. We also install Brownline seat rails so seats stay in place in the event of an accident. The Helio was designed to be crashworthy but we want to make it better. We've also added a flange on the lower end of the mains so the gear is interchangeable. You used to have to carry a spare left and a spare right. We've beefed up the gear, too, because in extremely short-field work we often touch down a little heavier just to get down and stopped. The gear on the Helio is pretty soft, thanks to Eddie Stinson's early design — you don't bounce 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. For example we've picked up about seven knots in cruise by redesigning the cowling and the fairings. Several years ago we obtained a gaggle of surplus Helios from Government excess property. The Goose is one, the remaining have either been rebuilt and sent abroad or parted out.

We've modified the cargo door, added a fire detection system and fuel system mods and added a cargo pod designed and built by our friend Tom Hamilton of Glasair design fame. Before we installed pods, we often volumed out the cabin with passengers and cargo well short of gross. Tom has been a good friend and a while back he asked us to suggest the perfect airplane for our kind of short-field work. We gave him our wish list — for instance, a 200-mph cruise speed and a touchdown speed of 30 mph — and he's about ready to start cutting metal for it. It won't be our "dream" airplane, but it will come close. Now we're looking for an engine that doesn't burn avgas, because where we go 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 a long time, and always turned to him first when a new copy of Flying came. So when his book, "Bax Seat, the log of a pasture pilot," came out I got an early copy. Some of his pieces really cracked me up and I still break out laughing at some of his antics. I think my favorite is when he was going to take his flaming-haired prospective son-in-law for a ride in the Stearman. Especially the line, "Its locked wheels rumpling up the sod like a cheap carpet..." What a word picture!

In '79 he had a booth at OSH selling his book. I happened on it during my wanderings when I was able to get away from our JAARS booth. I was a presence for 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 known you were going to be here. I'd have brought my book for you to sign," and proceeded to tell how much I had enjoyed it and had appreciated his writing for a long time. "No problem," he answered, "give me a piece of paper," and forthwith he wrote a dedication. "Cut that out and paste it 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 altitude where I could see all of God's universe spread out below and see the little toy doll 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 that thou art mindful of him..." Or as a modern translation has it, "I cannot understand how you can bother with mere puny man, to pay any attention to him." I said it boggled my mind that God could care for all us little ant specks down here on earth. "Wow," said Bax, "Where's that found in the Bible?" So I gave him chapter and verse — Psalms 8:4 — and that started our conversation down a spiritual track and began a friendship that endured for many years.

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

Is there a place in JAARS for someone who would like to contribute to this sort 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 of jobs that need doing. Short-term or long-term we can use aircraft mechanics, avionics specialists, computer specialists, auto and truck mechanics, telephone technicians, secretaries, buyers and shippers to just start the list. Some people 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 send out work parties for special projects but going on those is usually arranged on an 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 because pilots need special orientation for the environment they'll be flying in. Our pilots are front-line people. Some ability in diplomacy is a real plus. They have to know the language, the culture, the terrain, and have a feel for the weather where reports are often few and far between. All that can't be learned overnight. 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 they get?

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 in training missionary aviators, and we're getting most of our people there. But we like our pilots to spend a year or two after graduation working in private industry, to give them a dose of the work ethic. Sometimes an applicant will ask about the benefit package we offer, and I usually answer "Eternity."

Once a candidate is approved he can expect to spend three months at the JAARS Center 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 orientation to short fields and mountain flying, learn how to land on strips that run up the side of the mountain, make drops, both free and parachute, work in the hangar on the equipment they will be operating on the field and in general put a little spit and polish on what was already a fine pilot and/or mechanic. Construction and maintenance people do the same thing in their field as do computer applicants. What we do is specialized enough that it requires some solid preparation.

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 a mind-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 it will fly. I never had a problem believing that God would honor his promises as I never doubted the efficacy of my Helio's wings to provide lift. After three-quarters of a century of walking with God, I'm even more certain. I think I could liken it to becoming familiar with a new aircraft. At first your control inputs are tentative but as you learn its parameters and grow in your knowledge of its capabilities, you find you can put more faith in it. At last you put it on like an old shoe. You feel at home. I think that's the way my faith has changed over the years. It's grown and blossomed. God hasn't changed, but I have, 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 her answer when we were speaking to a Stateside audience and they had questions. A lady asked, "How did you feel about trusting the Lord for your husband's safety when he was out there flying over the jungle? "Well," she responded, "If He can't take care of him over the jungle He can't take care of him on these highways in the States which I think are a whole lot more dangerous!" Bless her heart, she never doubted, or if she did she never let on to me. But I'm convinced she was as certain as I that we were in the center of 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 Lord has let us accomplish with them. It's true that some of what we do is difficult and often dangerous but in over 50 years of flying in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain, JAARS has had only one accident with fatalities. We work hard at safety and do our own maintenance to the Nth degree, and we pilots hone our abilities like carrier pilots for short-field landings and the ability to fly the particular airplane we are operating to the outer edges of its envelope safely, with special emphasis on the low-speed side.

I'm blessed to have seen the airplane used as a powerful, life-changing tool for the greatest possible good imaginable. I've seen people's lives change forever — and I mean FOREVER. Headhunters, headshrinkers, and killers doing a 180 in their lifestyle — it's called repentance — because we carried the Gospel to places that would be unreachable by any other means. That's tremendously satisfying. Watch that happen day after day and your faith has to grow. God has allowed us to use airplanes to do a job that could not have gotten done without them.

Thanks to Ed Hamlin for suggesting Mr. Griffin.

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