Marco Koffeman, director of the flight school.Statue Elisa Maenhout

    At Teuge airport, Marco Koffeman sees how an airplane makes too long a ‘flair’. The landing must be much shorter, teaches the director of Mission Aviation Training Center (MATC), the only flight school in Europe that trains ‘bush pilots’. His pilots must soon be able to land in Africa or Papua New Guinea on barely paved airstrips without air traffic control. And also check that there are no animals on the runway.

    MATC delivers pilots for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a Christian aid organization that uses 130 aircraft to help remote village communities worldwide with air transport and medical supplies. MAF flies small Cessna aircraft in 26 developing countries and the bush pilots themselves also propagate their Christian beliefs.

    Jelle Hardenbol completed his second flight with passengers as a student pilot, his brother and his father who taught him the love of aviation as an employee at Fokker. Hardenbol’s dream fits in seamlessly with MAF’s mission. ‘I want to be meaningful for humanity, in the service of God’s Kingdom. That’s why I want to be a MAF pilot. Flying is also the ultimate form of freedom for me.’

    Director and trainer Koffeman has been doing ‘missionary work’ for thirty years as a convinced Christian. On behalf of MAF, Koffeman (51) spent seven years as a trainer in South Africa, flew for five years in Uganda and another four years in Bangladesh. In Congo, Koffeman also operated in a war zone. “Just on the border was an American team that was building a school, a hospital and a church. It was so bad there that we had to evacuate the team seven times. There are also rebels in the mountains, there is no airport where you can land peacefully. We had to make do with a green strip.’

    Once it was all over, according to Koffeman. “I landed on the strip and took those people with me. On Monday I read in the newspaper that the rebels had taken that airstrip, I should have landed less than half an hour later. A colleague of mine was shot at in South Sudan, there was a bullet hole in the plane.’

    For four years, Koffeman lived in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, among 15 million people. ‘That is almost the whole of the Netherlands in a city that is slightly larger than Amersfoort.’ From his flat he could shake hands with his neighbors from two sides. The bitter poverty in the most densely populated country in the world and the culture posed a permanent challenge, says Koffeman. ‘You also had to deal with bureaucratic problems, but we always kept our goal in mind.’

    Many specialized surgeons from the West work in the floating hospitals, who sometimes perform thousands of cataract operations. Koffeman transported them across the country in his amphibious plane, ‘because we could get everywhere’. MAF was regarded as the ‘flying ambulance’ in Bangladesh.

    MAF pilots are also a godsend in poorly accessible villages in Papua New Guinea. Koffeman: ‘By car you are sometimes on the road for three days in the mountains, while it is a ten minute flight. Our pilots are trained to land and take off under extreme conditions. It could be that someone wants money from you or the weather is bad, you have to find that out for yourself.’

    For example, Koffeman had to make a hasty restart in Uganda. “I had ten meters to go before landing when suddenly a pickup truck pulled up with rebels carrying kalashnikovs. I had to take off quickly. You have to decide on your own, our pilots have to have a certain profile.’

    That is why Koffeman decided to set up a specified training course for MAF himself. MATC is an independent non-profit foundation, ‘because there is no profit to be made with this’. No less than 85 percent of the candidates for his flight school drop out after the psychotechnical examination. The selection takes place in advance, because the training costs about 80 thousand euros. ‘We are not commercial’, says Koffeman. “Our pilots serve a special purpose.”

    Focus on the individual

    Did Koffman never get the idea that his missions in developing countries were just a drop in the ocean? ‘After three months in Bangladesh I thought: I’m going crazy here. In front of my flat, street children were begging, they could earn some money with my plastic bottles. From the window you could see the railroad tracks, there people lived under plastic bags. It was very confronting.

    ‘I have learned that the counselor should focus on the individual and not on the masses. Do I mean something in someone’s life? And then you see beautiful things, like I read in the Bible about the special encounters Jesus had.’

    Have the heartbreaking images in Bangladesh or Uganda never made him doubt his faith? Koffeman: ‘Of course I doubt. If I didn’t doubt, I’d carry God in a box with me. Then I figured it all out. It’s not right in the world, there’s a lot I don’t understand. The incomprehension and the doubt are part of my faith.’

    After a neat, short landing, Jelle Hardenbol lands his Cessna plane. MATC director Koffeman doesn’t want cowboys in the cockpit, but risk-averse behavior doesn’t fit with bush flying either. ‘Both extremes are not good. We are looking for people who find a healthy balance.’

    With an approving nod, Koffeman listens to Hardenbol, who decided in time not to fly to Texel with his father and brother. ‘We were above the clouds, the holes became less and less. At the Afsluitdijk it was one big gray area, I didn’t think it was responsible to go through that cloud.’ Koffeman: ‘This was a valuable flight for Jelle, he made the right decision under pressure. So Jelle should also be able to do this when he flies to Papua New Guinea or Uganda.’

    Profile: Mission Aviation Training Center (MATC)

    Founded: 2010

    Employees: 7

    Annual turnover: 400,000 euros

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