Aviation

Pilot makes a difference with medical flights in the Congo

Terra and Nate Birkemo are part of Mission Aviation Fellowship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Terra and Nate Birkemo are part of Mission Aviation Fellowship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Wichita Eagle

Nate Birkemo is a bush pilot flying for Mission Aviation Fellowship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It’s a place of extremes – the country has extreme natural beauty and beautiful people who are resilient, Birkemo said.

It has $24 trillion in natural resources, but its people are among the poorest in the world, he said.

Gross national income per capita is less than $400 a year.

Birkemo was the keynote speaker Monday at the Rotary Club of Wichita’s luncheon.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has one of the highest rates for infant mortality, Birkemo said, and thousands of children younger than 5 die from disease every year.

Travel is difficult, he said, because the country has only about 1,300 miles of paved roads. Many are isolated and cut off from help.

There is no national health care system, and options for health care are limited.

Birkemo flies medical professionals, medical and relief supplies, patients and others.

Patients walk for miles to get to a hospital.

He calls his Cessna Caravan his time machine.

He can fly over remote regions and in one hour travel a distance that otherwise would take five days, Birkemo said.

Adding to the isolation and poverty, he said, is the threat of violence.

He said the country has more than 30 rebel groups and that millions have died since fighting escalated in 1998.

Birkemo lives in the Congo with his wife, Terra, and their children, Grace, 7, and Ethan, 3.

They’ve been there for nearly nine years. Every 3 1/2 years, they come back to the U.S. for six months.

They have been in Wichita since July and will return in two months.

Birkemo was living in Wichita and had worked for Cessna when he decided he wanted to serve and began exploring his options.

He found Mission Aviation Fellowship.

“Once I made a call to their recruiters, it was like I was headed down a chute,” he joked.

The fellowship was founded in 1943 and has grown to 1,376 staff members working in 30 countries. It has 140 airplanes.

Birkemo says it’s a privilege to be there, to bring hope and, in some cases, to save a life.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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