"Aircraft have been so powerful in spreading death and destruction during the war. Why can't they be used to bring life and hope in peace time?"
This was the thought of a few young Christian Air Force officers towards the end of WWII. "Let's seek to use small planes to bring help to people in the inaccessible areas of our world."May 1944: Harry Hartwig (back centre) and the Liberator crew.
Amazingly, God simultaneously put this same thought into the minds of airmen in the UK, USA, Australia and South Africa. They didn't know each other at first. Connecting later, each group took the common name of Missionary Aviation Fellowship.
MAF began in both the USA and the UK in 1945. These were the first two groups to start operations and were soon followed by MAF Australia.
The beginnings of MAF Australia
On a cold Melbourne day in July 1949, and after much prayer to God for guidance and assistance, MAF pioneer aviator Harry Hartwig and engineer Alex Freind set off on a mission.
They were journeying out on "a flight of faith" to survey northern Australia.
As the pair climbed aboard their de Havilland Tiger Moth at Essendon airport, they were glad to be rigged out in fleecy-lined flying suits, helmets and goggles.
1949. The dedication of the Tiger Moth prior to departure to Northern AustraliaIn the open cockpit, these were essential. At altitude - even on a warm day - the slipstream was bone-chilling.
Two years prior to this event, MAF Australia had been formed in Melbourne as an autonomous body called Missionary Aviation Fellowship. The meeting minutes noted that: "we request affiliation with the fellowships in England and America."
Funds were soon trickling in from loyal church supporters but the fledgling organisation had no operational base.
Scouting for possible sites to set up a permanent base, Harry Hartwig and Alex Freind flew north towards established mission outposts and settlements in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Cruising at just 70 knots, it would have been a long and arduous journey across the vast Australian outback.
Among their landings in the Northern Territory were mission bases at Oenpelli, Roper River and Elcho Island. On Elcho Island they were welcomed by "a missionary with more than an ordinary interest in aviation."
His name was (Rev) Harold Shepherdson and he'd been based at Elcho for seven years, operating a highly effective aviation-based ministry to the local aboriginal (Yolngu) people for the Methodist Mission.
Shepherdson, who by this time was known warmly by the Yolngu as "Bapa Sheppy" had been ministering in Arnhem Land with his wife Ella since 1928.
The two MAF airmen could not have made a more valuable contact. Sheppy had known for years what Hartwig and Freind already suspected - that aviation was the most effective means of reaching people in remote, isolated settlements
Talks between the three aviators ranged across a number of issues but undoubtedly centred on the possibility of MAF establishing itself in North Australia and setting up an operational base in the region. But it was not to be. Not yet.
After a short stay, the two airmen moved on, looking at potential sites on Groote Eylandt and airstrips in northern Queensland at Burketown and Normanton.
Apparently dissatisfied with these locations, they journeyed on in the Tiger Moth heading north-east to Cape York and finally south to Cairns.
Based on information he had received in the meantime about the potential of New Guinea as a site, Harry Hartwig then left his companion in Cairns and caught a Qantas flight to Port Moresby. In New Guinea, he carried out his own survey of territory in the Madang region in conjunction with the Lutheran Mission.
MAF in PNG
The Lutherans had been operating out of Madang prior to WWII. After 1945, they retained their base there but had no pilots or ground staff. Nevertheless, they were keen to re-establish a mission aviation service.
After a series of negotiations, agreement was reached. MAF would set up its first operational foothold in New Guinea, not Australia as first planned.
The Lutheran Mission would meet the cost of an aircraft and equipment; MAF would provide the pilot, Harry Hartwig himself, and an engineer.
1951: The Auster that was flown to PNG
The decision put the notion of a field base for MAF in Australia on hold. The organisation's resources would now be directed towards the launch of an MAF program north of Torres Strait. In fact, 23 years would pass before plans for a MAF base in (northern) Australia were revisited.
Harry Hartwig's flying efforts for MAF in New Guinea got off to an encouraging start in May 1951. By the end of July, he had clocked up almost 300 hours in his plane, an Auster Autocar delivered from Sydney earlier that year. Already, he was making plans to extend the operation to Dutch New Guinea (Papua, formerly Irian Jaya).
But just as fresh enthusiasm was building within MAF and some of the goals set a few years earlier seemed in sight, disaster struck.
Late in the afternoon of August 5 1951, the Auster Autocar with Harry Hartwig at the controls failed to return to Madang after a routine flight from Asaroka in the Goroka Valley. A search was mounted but nightfall closed in before much ground could be covered.
On the morning of the next day, everybody's worst fears were confirmed. Wreckage of the Auster was discovered on a hillside. The hopes and prayers of searchers that the pilot might have survived the impact were dashed when local villagers called out from across the gorge that he had been killed instantly.
Harry with his Auster Autocar. This photo was taken just before his accident.
Harry Hartwig had flown into the Asaroka Gap and a deadly mix of conditions that still present a trap for unwary pilots in Papua New Guinea: low cloud, rugged terrain and unsuitable aircraft.
With no radio, generator, battery or electric starter to add "unnecessary weight", wisdom born of hindsight showed the Auster was indeed, as some critics had feared, ill-equipped for the tasks expected of it. Some valuable lessons had been learnt. But at such a cost.
The death of Harry Hartwig was a momentous loss to MAF and of course a devastating blow for his family. He left a young wife, Margaret, and baby daughter, Beth.
The tragedy stalled the MAF program in New Guinea. Not only had the organisation lost its only pilot but also its only aircraft and there were no funds or personnel to replace them.
Deeply shocked and saddened, both MAF and the Lutheran Mission did, however, eventually re-establish operations. With assistance from MAF USA, a new plane with an American pilot began operating again out of Madang from July 1952.
In fact, MAF's aviation services in New Guinea and Dutch New Guinea expanded steadily in the years that followed. Collectively they became, for a time, the largest MAF operation in the world.
MAF in Northern Australia
It was not until 1973 that discussions resumed regarding a MAF operational base in Australia with a particular focus on northern Australia.
In March that year, the then chief executive of MAF, Vic Ambrose, with pilot and colleague Max Meyers, landed in Darwin on a return trip from Timor.Vic and Joan Ambrose
They were met at the airport by Ken Stockton, a pilot with the Uniting Church based at Elcho Island. Ken flew the pair to Elcho for talks with Harold Shepherdson about the possible involvement of MAF in the Uniting Church's mission aviation program.
Sheppy had not forgotten the meeting with Harry Hartwig and Alex Freind 22 years earlier. Now he was looking to retire to Adelaide with his wife Ella after 45 years of dedicated service in Arnhem Land. Before departing, he wanted to ensure the work he had established over so many years was left in good hands.
Towards the end of 1973 after a second round of talks, MAF was invited to assume responsibility for the entire aviation service operated by the Uniting Church in Arnhem Land. The invitation was accepted.
1973: Harold Sheperdson and his wife Ella at Elcho Island.
And so, 24 years after Harry Hartwig's landmark meeting with Harold Shepherdson, North Australia was added to MAF's field of operations.
Today, MAF North Australia continues to deliver an effective air service in Arnhem Land to the Yolngu people and other air travellers from its base on the Gove Peninsula.
The local Yolngu community and user-groups from religious, private enterprise and government sectors value the service for its efficiency and reliability.
If they could see it today, Harry Hartwig and Harold Shepherdson would be well pleased.
MAF Australia today
The MAF Australia office moved to Sydney in 2008 and took on the responsibility of recruiting staff and raising financial & prayer support in Australia to pass on to MAF International's worldwide operations. These operations are in Mongolia, East Timor, Bangladesh, PNG and Arnhem Land as well as seven African countries.