Jo Lamb, of Mission Aviation Fellowship UK, celebrates co-founder Jack Hemmings’ 102nd birthday, and reflects on his lifelong passion for aviation, which lead to him creating opportunities for Christian aid to reach some of the most isolated places on earth.

I was 19 years old when I volunteered for aircrew,” smiles Jack, as he speaks to a reporter about how he first realised his love for aviation. I thought, If I am going to fight in a war, I may as well do it sitting down!’” he remarked. 

Jack has so much to celebrate. As he spends a memorable day as special guest at Eastbourne Airshow to mark his 102nd birthday, it is evident he’s lost none of the youthful humour, tenacious spirit and unwavering passion that led him into aviation over 80 years ago. 

Surrounded by air crew and journalists who stopped by to shake his hand and hear him recite fond memories, Jack recalls adventurous tales of wartime RAF and pioneering MAF – the Christian charity which has grown to become the world’s largest humanitarian air service. 


Mission Aviation Fellowship began as a question in the hearts of a handful of Christian airmen and women in the aftermath of the Second World War: Could aircraft used so skilfully for war be operated as vessels for peace and love?

Jack Hemmings and RAF engineer Stuart King were among them. They had the bravery to go and find out.

Stuart King and Jack Hemmings in 2019

Setting off in January 1948, in a wooden Miles Gemini aircraft with little more than a compass and the river Nile as their guide, Jack and Stuart became the first British pilots to survey the humanitarian needs of remote communities dotted across central Africa.

Although we were professionals in aviation, we were amateurs in mission,” recalled Stuart, who passed away aged 98 in 2020, but served MAF from its genesis. We just felt the call to go. We didn’t think ahead to what it might become!”

Never has the phrase on a wing and a prayer’ seemed more apt.

MAF’s first 10-month survey revealed the acute dangers of isolation – dangers which still exist today. Many villages where Jack and Stuart landed were completely cut off from medicine, education, and the gospel – and most had never seen an aircraft.

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Jack at the controls

Tragically, even in 2023, 675 million people still live without electricity according to the UN. And Operation World believes roughly two billion people have not yet heard the gospel. 

Isolation continues to be an increasing problem, but MAF’s mission continues to grow, despite the inevitable setbacks and ongoing challenges that face those who pioneer for the sake of Christ – as Jack and Stuart did 75 years ago.

Their brave assignment to land at more than 100 remote outposts in 1948 ended abruptly when their aircraft was caught in a downdraught while climbing the Burundi foothills. 

Miraculously we both stepped out of the wreckage unscathed,” Jack grins to a captive audience of young aviators at Eastbourne. Stuart had a few bruises, and myself a cut on my little finger!” 

"This determined, passionate and faithful pilot never fails to inspire."

Completing the final leg of their survey in an old four-wheel drive, the pair returned to London more convinced than ever about the importance of aircraft to bring help, hope and healing to remote communities.

After prayerfully rallying funds for a replacement aeroplane, Jack and Stuart established MAF’s first base in Sudan in 1950. From Sudan, MAF’s services expanded across central Africa, while prayer and financial support grew back in Britain, in the USA, Australia and across Europe.

By the early 1960s, MAF had African bases in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Chad. On one occasion, Stuart flew evangelist Billy Graham to Tanzania and the fleet began to include Cessna aircraft.

During the 1990s, we flew Bob Geldoff and the BBC 19 times to broadcast devastating scenes which would go on to spark Live Aid and a global humanitarian awakening.

Today, MAF operates a fleet of 116 aircraft in more than 25 low-income countries and employs more than 1,300 people – almost 80% of them from local communities. Flying to more destinations than any other airline, a MAF aircraft takes off or lands every six minutes. 

Jack, who continued to fly until his 101st birthday and performed aerobatics for his centenary, has remained passionate about using aircraft for the good of humanity throughout his adventurous life. 

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1948 MAF survey of eastern and central Africa

I’ve never got into an aircraft and regretted it,” he beams. Flying gives a feeling of detachment from all the problems of the world – and there are many problems.”

This determined, passionate and faithful pilot never fails to inspire. He will leave a legacy that saves hundreds of lives every day; a vision that was born from the Great Commission in Matthew 28, and continues to fuel the MAF fleet across the world.

We could have imagined half a dozen aircraft in Africa,” Jack concludes, but today MAF has expanded beyond anyone’s expectations. Every flight does some good – it’s like the international Good Samaritan of the air. Pioneering MAF wasn’t a question of hope. We just went out and did it. Faith in itself is a doubtful merit, but it’s what you have faith in that truly matters.”

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