When aviation missionary Gaston Ntambo receives a call for an emergency medical flight in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he must first get permission to fly to neighboring Zambia to obtain fuel.
His 1980 six-passenger Cessna P-210 airplane runs on aviation fuel, which is outmoded and no longer available in his Central African home country.
"I try to keep as much as possible handy, but we're not allowed to bring any across the border by vehicle," he said in an interview this week from Corpus Christi, Texas.
Knowing that every minute counts as a sick or injured person waits to be airlifted, Mr. Ntambo races across the border, fills his plane's six tanks and a row of jerrycans -- paying $17 a gallon for the fuel and turning his plane into "a flying bomb," he said -- then fills out the paperwork and pays a $200 fee for the emergency clearance.
"The minimum time I can do it is an hour and a half to fill up, secure the load, and pay my fees. It can be five to six hours later by the time I get to my patient. It becomes complicated. Sometimes I make it in time, sometimes I don't," he said.
A newer plane that uses readily available jet fuel, the same used by commercial airliners, would save precious time and money.
The United Methodist Church has raised $1.2 million so far toward the $1.6 million Mr. Ntambo needs to buy a refurbished 12-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan. Toledo's Epworth United Methodist Church, which has close ties to Mr. Ntambo and his ministry, is to hold a benefit concert featuring music and storytelling Friday at 7 p.m. at the church, 3077 Valleyview Dr. off Central Avenue. Admission is free and an offering will be taken.
Epworth has played a vital role in Mr. Ntambo's ministry from the beginning, having sponsored his pilot's training at Davis College as well as helping him get his airplane mechanic's license at the Michigan Institute of Aeronautics.
"I have no doubt about Epworth pitching in," Mr. Ntambo said. "They trained me. … They did not hesitate to feed me and my children, pay for me to go to school. I feel like Epworth is my home and any time I have a challenge I can run home. They made me. They created me."
Mr. Ntambo, 42, first came to Toledo 20 years ago to study accounting at Davis, but then he spotted a group of students wearing leather jackets and glasses and learned they were attending flight school. He was immediately smitten with the prospect of becoming a pilot and switched his studies to aviation.
After receiving a pilot's license, he returned to the Congo but came back to the United States for mechanic's training at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich.
"It's difficult to find a mechanic in the field," he said. "Some of the places I happen to go are very remote."
Last year, for example, as he landed on a dirt runway a rock sliced through one of his plane's tires. He was able to fix it himself; a wait for a mechanic would have been four to five weeks.
The Rev. Robert Thomas, Epworth's pastor, visited Mr. Ntambo in 2010 and witnessed Wings of the Morning ministry in action in the country's North Katanga Area, a region the size of Texas.
"There really aren't any roads in that part of the world. In the rainy season, they are all washed out," Mr. Thomas said. "You can reach some areas with a four-wheel drive, and there is a train, but when I was there the train had not run for six months. We visited local churches and saw the desperate need. People were happy and seemed well-fed, but when they were sick there wasn't any medical help available."
In addition to flying people for medical emergencies -- with his wife serving as the flight dispatcher -- Mr. Ntambo carries medical supplies, Bibles, and pastors to remote villages.
Epworth is hoping to raise $50,000 toward the cost of the refurbished Cessna Grand Caravan, Mr. Thomas said.
Mr. Ntambo said he is looking for a plane that, regardless of the year it was made, has less than 5,000 hours of airtime.
A new Cessna Grand Caravan with standard equipment costs between $2.1 million and $2.2 million, he said, and brand-new 2010 models are available for about $1.8 million.
In addition to the fuel benefits a newer plane offers, it will be helpful to be able to fly up to a dozen people at a time, Mr. Ntambo said.
He often has to backtrack and make a second trip to pick up extra people on his medical airlifts. "A lot of the time when I get a call for medical flights, you're expecting to pick up two people. But every patient has a helper. And then you find that the mother has a baby that is breast-feeding. And she has a 3-year-old that cannot be left behind. So instead of flying two or three people, you have six."
Mr. Ntambo, who has five children and is the son of Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo, the United Methodist bishop of North Katanga, said he views his work as a calling from God.
"I continue to receive job offers left and right, and the government of my region has offered to pay me a lot of money. But it's not something that even tempts me at all, because of what I go through in saving people's lives," he said. "It's not about the money. … You see people who walked 60 to 100 miles to a clinic for medical help, and they have nothing. They are at a point of losing a loved one. You can see in their eyes how grateful they are. You must know this is the hand of God at work. You are just glad to be able to help."
More information on Wings of the Morning ministry is available online at wocumcsecure.org/wotm and northkatangaumc.org.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.