Healing Takes Wing With Samaritan Aviation
By shannon sutherland smith
September 6, 2012
The 700-mile Sepik River winds like a serpent through much of Papua New Guinea—the world’s second-largest island—and it’s this waterway that often provides the only pathway to reach the suffering, the injured and the dying.
It was on Good Friday in 2010 that the only floatplane on the entire island landed on the Sepik River to pick up its precious cargo —a mother and baby in very serious trouble from an obstructed birth.
“She was dying and we had to get her to a hospital quickly,” says Mark Palm, the pilot, who along with his partner Gary Bustin, has invested 16 years of his life to land the amphibious Cessna 206 in that murky river on that day. “We got her to the hospital in time, and Antonia delivered a healthy baby boy. I realized that I had just helped save two lives, and all the hard work, all the sacrifices that it took to get to that moment were so worth it—it was better than I ever could have imagined.
Samaritan Aviation serves in Papua New Guinea (PNG), an island populated by about six million people—most of whom are completely cut off from goods, services and society. The mission’s Spirit of Paradise floatplane in PNG conducts emergency “life flights,” delivers medical supplies to remote health centers and transports teams to villages for community health training.
“In the East Sepik Province (where Samaritan Aviation operates) there are 500,000 people and one hospital,” says Palm, a pastor’s kid with a passion for flying passed down from his grandfather who was a pilot in the Second World War.
“About 80% of these people live out in remote areas without access to this one hospital, and 200,000 of them live along the Sepik River. We are a direct link for medical emergencies, to help get medicine to clinics in hours instead of months and for disaster relief—we even helped to stop a cholera epidemic based on fast response. In just three days there were 96 cases, and without a quick response thousands might have died.”Samaritan Aviation has helped lower the infant mortality rate in the East Sepik province and has delivered more than 40,000 pounds of medical supplies. Since it began operating in 2010, 168 lives have been saved. “On our life flights we see everything from breach births, retained placentas, cerebral malaria and TB to broken backs, snake bites and spear, arrow, and machete wounds,” says Palm.
Getting Samaritan Aviation off the ground, however, required monumental patience and perseverance. Palm, a husband and father of three young children, first heard God calling him to missions through aviation when he was 16 years old on a youth group trip to Mexico. In 1994, when he was 19 years old, Palm and Bustin spent a month in Papua New Guinea. “We saw the need both physically and spiritually and the lack of access,” says Palm. “That is where the vision for a floatplane came in to access areas and offer hope through medical services. Samaritan Aviation uses aviation as a tool to share Christ.” Palm says it is often after the immediate danger has passed in the quiet moments of thankfulness and relief that he and the team members have the opportunity to talk about how Christ’s love transforms lives—including their own.
But knowing how they wanted to serve and actually finding a way to do it proved to be daunting indeed. “I was 26 when we finally incorporated and we looked young, and we were young, and we had this grand vision of a floatplane on an island many people had never even heard of,” says Palm. “We took a picture of me and my wife and Gary and his wife in front of someone else’s floatplane and sent cards out to 330 people and prayed hard expecting a big response.”
He says the response to that initial mail-out was “underwhelming” to say the least, and aside from a couple of hundred dollars a few “attaboys,” they weren’t much closer to purchasing a plane than they had been before they took the cards to the post office. But he says they always acknowledged that this was God’s mission, not theirs, and therefore it was also about His timing. Palm worked as a youth pastor, worship pastor, airplane mechanic and even a real estate agent for many years before he was finally able to move his young family to PNG and start impacting the island nation for Christ.
Samaritan Aviation still operates the only floatplane in the country, and Palm would like to expand their operations to an additional three provinces in PNG and add four more floatplanes. They’re also looking for another pilot family to join the mission in PNG and are seeking community health training staff to help the local staff run the community health programs.
“We are so blessed and humbled that we can be out on the front lines doing this,” says Palm. “Every major decision we have made as a family has been based on serving the people in PNG, and ultimately, everyone we come in contact with. I wouldn’t change a thing. We have one chance here on earth to allow God to use us. When I look back on life I want to know that I did what I was asked to do and I pray that God is glorified through my life wherever I happen to be.”