Aviation Tragedy: When disaster strikes

Bruce Van Fleet and Luke Sullivan (Source: ITEC / Facebook)

Let me tell you about Luke and Bruce.

Luke Sullivan was 28 years old. By all accounts, Luke wanted to do more than just fly airplanes for the fun of it. He didn’t want to make a buck. He wanted to make a difference. So while so many pilots wind up flying to the airlines, Luke’s aviation career led him to Guatemala.

It may sound like an unlikely place for a budding young Texas aviator to end up, but Luke accepted the position of aviation director for Paradise Bound Ministries. The Michigan-based organization, according to its website, is a Christian non-profit created to “do ‘whatever it takes’ to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost and dying in Guatemala.” That includes providing clean water and medical care to people in remote villages – and Luke was a part of that.

Bruce Van Fleet, age 32, is from Florida. Another pilot, I’m told Bruce had just received his commercial license and was working on getting his A&P. Like Luke, he was interested in mission aviation, and he recently went to visit with Luke in Guatemala to learn more about the possibility of working with Paradise Bound Ministries.

Four days ago, both of them were on the same flight. According to a report by The Washington Post, the aircraft took off from Quiche department, bound for Guatemala City’s international airport, when it went down in Chimaltenango department, about 20 miles from the capital.

Luke ultimately died from his injuries. He leaves behind a wife, three children and a fourth on the way.

As of the time of this writing, Bruce is back in the states in a medically induced coma. He is fighting for his life. He has a wife and a child.

I write this not to be morbid. I don’t know either man. Originally, I planned this blog to be about a chance encounter with a Pietenpol pilot one of my instructors and I had while visiting a grass strip. But with my Facebook feed filling up with concerned prayers and condolences for the families involved, this seemed more important.

"He is one of the nicest people you could ever meet," wrote Austin Brumfield, one of my Facebook friends, about Bruce. "I don't know why God gives us days like these, and I know Bruce has got to feel so alone where he's at right now. Be praying for him."

Zack Wilkinson, another Facebook friend, had this to say:

"At its core, aviation is about relationships. In the same way, the calling of Christ is a call to establish a connection with a man who came to offer salvation to all. Regrettably, Luke lost his life in pursuit of serving the Lord through aviation largely before getting started. He was not the first, and he will not be the last. Though his part on earth is done, its impact is far from over. Luke lived for Christ each day. For some who hear his story, his impact will have just begun."

There is just something about the aviation community. Maybe it's the shared bond we have of having spent hours studying weight and balance problems and acronyms. Or trying to figure out how to track and follow VOR approaches. Or sweating out power on stalls for the first time. Maybe it's simply the closeness we all feel from a shared love of aviation. Whatever it is, when a tragedy like this strikes, aviators from all over the country seem to come together and step up to help.

You don't have to share Luke and Bruce's faith – as I do – in order to feel for their families or mourn Luke's loss.

As my Facebook friend so eloquently put it, it's not the first time the field of mission aviation has faced such tragic losses. Most famously, on Jan. 8, 1956, Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot Nate Saint, along with fellow missionaries Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian, were slaughtered in Ecuador by members of the Huaorani tribe after making the first contact. (For more information, see the film "End of the Spear," or better yet, read "Jungle Pilot" by Nathaniel Hitt.)

Those deaths seemed senseless at the time. But something incredible happened. Some of the widows of the men who were murdered went back to live with the tribe. They ministered to them. This isolated tribe – a tribe so murderous the locals had given them the derogatory name "Auca," which means "savage" – took them in. They learned a better way. They stopped killing each other.

Years later, Nate Saint's children were baptized by the very men who murdered their father. Their families share a bond that, to outsiders, makes absolutely no sense. And yet…

After the murders on the beach, the remains of Nate's plane were washed away by a brutal storm. They weren't found until decades later in 1994. The skeletal frame is now housed in the lobby of Mission Aviation Fellowship headquarters in Nampa, Idaho. I've seen it. I've seen the dents the natives' machetes made in the metal.

The remains of Nate Saint's airplane, located in the lobby of Mission Aviation Fellowship. (Source: MAF.org)

Aviation is, by and large, relatively safe. Most of us know this. Most of us will never have to deal with this kind of tragedy. But when it does happen, it seems senseless. It seems like it was all for nothing.

The family of Nate Saint would disagree.

I would not dare to speak for the Sullivan or Van Fleet families. They don't need me to speak. I don't know them. They need us to listen – and to help where we can.

If anyone is interested in helping either family, there are a number of ways to step up:

Paradise Bound has set up a GoFundMe account to help both the Sullivan and Van Fleet families. For more information, CLICK HERE.

ITEC, the company that was training Bruce Van Fleet (the company that was started by Nate Saint's son), has also set up a GoFundMe account for his family. For more information, CLICK HERE.

Travis K. Kircher is a private pilot based in Louisville, Kentucky.