Aviation repair center marks 40 years of serving missionaries

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

 

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  Roald Amundsen and Len Wikstrom stand in front of one of MARC's Piper Navajo twin-engine airplanes. Photo by Phil Hermanek

Dave Cochran and Bob Martin perform maintenance on a twin-engine Piper Navajo in the hanger at Missionary Aviation Repair Center. MARC uses three of the planes for its missionary work.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Alaska aviation lore is richly laden with inspirational anecdotes of pilots asking for divine intervention to get them through blinding blizzards and darkness, flying with angels and landing on a wing and a prayer to get to their intended destination or safely back home.

Not many compare, however, to the link Roald Amundsen credits with his many years as a missionary pilot and the 40-year success of the Missionary Aviation Repair Center in Soldotna.

"I had a beautiful dear wife on the ground praying for us the whole time," the 89-year-old founder of MARC said recently.

"That's why we made it. That's why we were successful," Amundsen said.

He and his wife, Harriet, raised three children, Jeanette, now 58, John, 55, and Tim, 52, in Alaska.

Though his wife passed away last year, the bright blue eyes of Roald Amundsen fill with a joyful gleam as he speaks of his life's partner.

It's a gleam similar to the one in his eye when he recalls years and years of flying missionaries around the Norton Sound district figuratively deeded to the Covenant Church.

Covenant, an offshoot of the Swedish-Lutheran Evangelical Church, was among Christian churches that agreed with one another to evangelize in specific sections of Alaska, bringing the word of God to Native people.

Amundsen, who started flying in his hometown of Beloit, Wis., on the Illinois state line, was ordained as a minister in the Covenant Church after completing seminary training in Chicago in 1944.

The following year, he came up to Alaska with the Covenant mission from Seattle and began flying out of Nome, visiting villages rimming Norton Sound and down to Nunivak Island.

"I was in mission flying for 20 years," said Amundsen, who turns 90 on Oct. 7.

The prime duty of mission pilots was to get missionaries to where they needed to go. They also hauled freight, bringing supplies to missionaries and building materials to those building missions.

The flyers also assisted with transporting people to and from Covenant's children's home and school in Unalakleet.

Amundsen recalled the early days of flying around Alaska, using visual flying rules navigation.

"We had some low-frequency radar stations left over from the war, but it was all VFR flying," he said.

"I also communicated with wireless radio.

"Do you know what that is?" he asked, his blue eyes taking on the boyish gleam again.

"You put your message in a toilet paper roll and throw it out the window," he said with a grin.

Toward the end of one mission trip, Amundsen was headed to Unalakleet with three passengers, but was running low on fuel.

It was nighttime and he was going to be forced to land on top of a mountain.

 

MARC's hanger is located at Soldotna Municipal Airport.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I aimed for this rolling hill, put the plane down and then the hill was gone. It just dropped off (on the other side)," he said.

"I came around again and my landing lights caught the mountain, and we managed to land safely," he said.

Members of the Civil Air Patrol in Fairbanks were dispatched and dropped two sleeping bags and some food for the stranded travelers, and the next morning, others came out from Unalakleet with a can of gas so Amundsen was able to fly off the mountain and complete the journey.

"I've flown over that mountain many times since, and I've still not found a place to land," he said.

Other church missions also had also started flying in Alaska, and Amundsen realized a need for bringing order to mission flying and for bringing proper maintenance to their aircraft.

In 1964, he came to Soldotna, and the aviation repair center was born.

"We started MARC with no-thing," Amundsen said of the center's beginnings under the direction of himself and Bud Lofstedt, who went on to form Kenai Air Service, a commercial venture.

"We bought a little wooden hangar, that we used from 1964 to 1967, and we incorporated as a nonprofit corporation.

"It's been that way since," he said.

The aviation repair center depends on donations and contributions from churches and individuals.

"We also did some maintenance work in the shop (for nonmissionaries) that subsidized some of the costs of our missionary flying," Amundsen said.

"That's really the Scriptural foundation of our work.

"Paul mentions those who were tent makers who subsidized their missionary work," Amundsen said.

"We did everything on the airplanes, from rebuilding and overhauling engines to routine maintenance to keep them flying."

 

MARC's logo adorns one of the organization's planes.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Eighteen years after MARC began, Len Wikstrom came up to Soldotna from Tacoma, Wash., in 1982 to help build a new hangar after the existing building burned down.

The new building was 60 by 80 feet, replacing a 50 by 60-foot hangar.

After the building was moved to its present location, a 24 by 80-foot office area was added on. The addition also houses a smart lobby area for departing and arriving air travelers, an extensive parts room and restrooms.

"I moved up the following year from the Independent Bible Church," said Wikstrom, now the director of the repair center.

He had been trained in aviation electronics while in the U.S. Navy in the early 1950s and moved with his wife, Cozene, and daughter, Erika. The couple also has two sons, Curt and Greg.

"I came on in 1983 doing avionics everything electronic in an airplane controls, navigation, radios, GPS (global positioning system navigation)," he said.

Because of his technical expertise, Wikstrom also has been called upon to take the company from a one-computer operation to one linked with a computer network.

In 1994, when Amundsen retired, Wikstrom took over as director.

"We now have eight volunteers," Wikstrom said.

"We do not draw salaries. We are faith-based missionaries who raise our own support through churches and other individuals.

"The majority live close by in Soldotna," he said.

MARC covers the Alaska Peninsula up to Fairbanks, west to Kotzebue, down to Nunivak and to the Bristol Bay area.

"Basically its a 500-mile arc," Wikstrom said.

In addition to three Piper Navajo twin-engine airplanes, MARC has two training planes: a 172 and a 140 Cessna.

"We give flight instruction to people in the community, and we have trained some Eskimos from the villages, who have desired to get a pilot's license," he said.

Besides maintaining the airplanes, work includes flying for nondenominational evangelical churches serving Moravians, Lutherans, Baptists, Friends and the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska, according to Wikstrom.

"We take a lot of work groups to repair existing facilities such as Bible camps and churches, or we cut firewood for people who live there.

"Sometimes we take food to them," he said.

One unusual load flown by MARC volunteers consisted of 40 cement blocks used for the foundation of a church being built. They've also flown such cargo as wood stoves, refrigerators, couches and dogs for pastors.

 

Roald Amundsen and Len Wikstrom stand in front of one of MARC's Piper Navajo twin-engine airplanes.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

The repair center performs 100-hour inspections and 50-hour oil changes on each of its aircraft, and MARC does commercial maintenance and work on other missionaries' planes.

"We take commercial work on planes, but only as time allows," Wikstrom said.

"Mission stuff comes first. Commercial comes second."

Despite not being paid regular salaries nor having the ability to amass wealth, Wikstrom said MARC workers are rich in another sense.

"We have something to look forward to when we leave this world.

"The joy is knowing that all the people we support are praying for us," he said.

People wishing to make donations to MARC may send them to MARC, P.O. Box 511, Soldotna, AK 99669.



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