MATA Flies at Kako

The Missionary Aviation Association plane taking off for more passengers

A year ago this week, Hank and I took flight for an unforgettable Alaskan adventure.  We jetted to Anchorage, rode in a thirty-passenger propeller plane to the small town of Aniak, and were met there by a three-passenger bush plane. We landed in the beautiful, remote, roadless Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta at a place called Kako. Kako, which means “clay” in the Yupik Eskimo language, is the site of a gold mine dating back to the early 1900’s. It’s also the location of Kako Retreat Center, founded and run by Dave and Vera Penz with the help of volunteers from across the U.S.A.

The Penzes spent nearly thirty years reaching out to the isolated villages of the Delta. Although Dave finished his tasks on earth this past April, Vera, in her eighties, is still hard at work.

We went to Kako for the annual Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat. We helped in any way we could, but I was also there to gather information for a book whose working title is From Clay to Gold—God’s Alchemy at Kako, Alaska. It tells how Dave and Vera Penz shared God’s love with Alaska’s people. Airplanes were and are an absolutely crucial part of their work.

Alaska teens at the Berry Picking Retreat

Sharing a favorite song in Yupik

Kako Retreat Center

In the roadless areas of Alaska, planes and pilots are essential for medical emergencies, grocery and mail runs, retrieving visitors, traveling…or for any purpose one would use a motor vehicle in the other forty-nine states. Pilots help Kako build bridges of friendship to the far-flung people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. They also bring villagers in for retreats, camps, and classes. There may be thirty-five to fifty young people at each of the six sessions of summer camp. Fifty women planned to attend this year’s berry picking retreat. That’s a lot of flying when the planes can carry only three to five passengers at a time.

A few times, Kako events had to be cancelled because no pilots were available. (Dave’s pilot’s license lapsed in recent years because of health problems.) Sometimes airplanes go down for repairs. In such instances, friends of Kako may loan a plane and/or offer their flying skills. Last summer, we rode in a plane loaned by the Christian Pilots’ Association of Alaska because Kako’s Cessna 182 was out of service with a cracked engine casing.

The Cessna 182 was repaired by MATA. another group that has provided invaluable help over the years. MATA (Missionary Aviation Training Academy) is based in Arlington, Washington. MATA trains missionary pilots to serve in fields all over the world. They often send planes and pilots to Kako during summer camping season, along with teams of other workers. They repair Kako’s planes and rebuild engines at reasonable prices.

Inside MATA’s new building

When KRC’s Cessna 182 turned out to need a complete engine overhaul, MATA’s maintenance specialist, Dary Finck, took charge of the work. He flew the engine from Kako to Bethel, where Lynden Air Transport took it on to Fife, Washington. From there he hauled it to MATA’s new building in Arlington. Many of the needed parts were donated, as was the labor of those who worked on it. Donations also paid for most of the freight.

The engine shone as if brand-new when it was returned to Fife and placed on a barge for Anchorage. From Anchorage it was air freighted to Kako and installed in the plane by volunteers from a local Alaska airline.

Dave Penz, Dary Fink, and Hank Husby with the rebuilt engine

Vera Penz at MATA’s headquarters

MATA’s Executive Director, Gordon Bakke and his wife Elaine, a nurse, served as missionaries for twenty-two years in Zambia, Africa. He joined MATA in 1999, soon after its founding. Gordon met Dave and Vera in 2002. Dave told Gordon he could use help with flying, so Gordon took his first trip to Alaska that summer.

For seven consecutive summers Gordon flew his own Cessna 182 from Arlington to Kako, following the Alaska Highway for much of the distance. He flew helpers in and out of Kako. He flew in attendees for family camp, and kids from the villages for kids’ camp. He also did the required annual inspections on Kako’s aircraft.
All the people at MATA are volunteers. The organization exists on donations. It is not a flight school; rather it is a training program. Each student is on his own program, since many have regular jobs. For a commercial license, a minimum of 250 flying hours is required.

Requirements by mission organizations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators’ JAARS are higher—four to five hundred hours. One way for new pilots to earn those hours is to fly for Kako. MATA pilots at Kako fly an average of two hundred flight hours per summer, flying kids and other passengers to KRC, bringing in cargo, then making the long flight back to headquarters at Arlington.

Websites for MATA:

Other Sun Breaks posts about Kako:

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