IONIA, Mich. (KATHLEEN LAVEY, LANSING STATE JOURNAL) -- On a cold but cloudless Wednesday morning, student pilots at the Ionia Airport were hard at work, throttling up their Cessna practice planes for takeoff, rising smoothly or not-so-smoothly into the air.

They'd drone off into the distance over brown-stubble cornfields, flying in a set pattern, then come down again, smoothly or not-so-smoothly.

Inside a pristine hangar, Ben Lesperance prepared a white Cessna 172 four-seater for a longer trip, creating a flight plan that would take him to southern Indiana and back by way of his sister's house in Valparaiso.

Lesperance is meticulous, serious, focused. In fact, he is a man on a mission. He and his wife, Rachael, pulled up stakes in the Chicago area last summer to move to mid-Michigan for a year so he could attend the School of Missionary Aviation Technology, based here at this tiny airport.

Their goal: Serve as missionaries to carry the message of Christianity to people in the most remote regions of the world.

"We wanted to serve the Lord in the mission field," Lesperance said. "There are places where, without airplanes, the gospel wouldn't move very fast. There are also a lot of humanitarian needs."

Lesperance is among six student pilots at the School of Missionary Aviation Technology — SMAT for short. SMAT teaches pilots to fly in the rugged, difficult conditions they'll likely find as they carry people and supplies to missionary outposts in Africa, the South Pacific and South America and elsewhere in the world. The school also has 30 students in its aviation maintenance technology program.

On Wednesday, Lesperance went over the plane, making sure everything was ready for the flight. Above the vast hangar door, colorful flags of many nations dangled from lines strung across the ceiling.

Alongside the U.S. stars and stripes were the black-and-red, diagonally split flag of Papua New Guinea, the red, green and black stripes signifying Kenya, the blue and white of Guatemala and many more.

They signify places students have come from, or places graduates have gone.

Along the course of his map, Lesperance's flight instructor has placed sticky notes, to be removed at a certain time during the flight. Each note will reveal a twist he might not expect: A change of route for an obstacle such as a thunderstorm, a diversion to pick up a sick child. They're meant to help him learn to cope with real-life variations he might find on a remote mission route.

"We train them differently than the traditional flight school," said Terry Yoder, SMAT's president and CEO since last July. Students have to learn to fly without help from a control tower, without depending on high-end instruments or computer programs.

They need to learn to figure it out as they go.

"You might be flying into a mountainous airstrip where the runway is on an upslope," Yoder said. "You might be using landmarks on the ground to know what your altitude should be as you're coming in."

Yoder, who lives in the Grand Rapids suburb of Rockford, had hoped to work in the mission fields himself. He's a licensed pilot and has worked in both aviation and education. Now, the school is his calling.

"I love being able to interact with all the mission organizations," he said. "It's just really cool to see how the tools of aviation are being used around the world."

Humble beginnings

In 1970, a retired Air Force officer started a missionary aviation school in conjunction with the Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music. It merged with Grand Rapids Baptist College to become Cornerstone College and later, Cornerstone University.

Cornerstone eliminated the aviation program in 1997, but a three-member board of directors stepped up to save the program. They incorporated it as SMAT and it operated at several mid-Michigan locations, winding up at the Ionia Airport in 2008.

With a fundraising campaign and a sizable donation from the Dick and Besty DeVos Foundation, SMAT opened a state-of-the art classroom and hands-on workshop in 2011, alongside its original hangar.

Tuition — $49,000 for pilots, about $22,000 for aviation maintenance technology — makes the instruction self-supporting, Yoder said, while donors step up mostly for capital needs and resources.

This year's class of SMAT students comes from a variety of Christian denominations and hail from around the country and the world.

There's an aviation technology student from South Africa and another from South Korea. Besides Michigan, others come from Minnesota, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, California, Illinois. They range in age from a new high school grad to a retiree.

This year's group includes six women.

All students are in class or workshop 40 hours a week, five days a week; that's the only way they can finish in a single year. That speed is a selling point, Yoder said, because the process of becoming a missionary isn't easy or quick. Most maintenance training programs are 18 to 24 months long.

Besides earning flight or mechanic certification, some organizations require that they prepare academically, studying the Bible and mission training. Many must raise their own financial support, then attend language school or advanced flight or ministry training.

"Most of these students, it will be six to eight years before they see the mission fields," Yoder said. That includes their time at SMAT.

He estimated that 40 to 50 percent of SMAT's previous students are missionaries now. Others work in secular aviation, some in places such as Alaska and the Caribbean, where small planes are common.

Finding a path

The words of Jeremiah 29:13 are written across the top of a the whiteboard at the front of the aviation maintenance technology classroom: "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."

It's a little inspiration to help keep the students focused as they work their way through the thick FAR AMT: The FAA's bible for those who keep planes flying.

Piles of books, laptops, tablets and papers cover long tables used for classroom work. Students must pass tests in 49 different areas concerning general maintenance, airframe and engine work before they're certified.

On Wednesday, they adjourned at mid-morning to the workshop, mixing up two-part resin compounds used to repair cracks and breaks in composite parts of planes.

Instructor Nathan Rozema leaned over a cup of blue-green epoxy, urging student Darren Lea to stir it vigorously.

"You want to get rid of that cloudy look," he said.

At another table, Ryan Cummings and Sun Park waited their turn to get their own resin mixture.

Cummings, 24, grew up in the Oakland County community of White Lake, then joined the Air Force. He became a Christian as a teenager, led by a high school friend and a football coach. As part of his Air Force duty, he spent eight months in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan.

"I really fell in love with the place and the people," he said. He considered another Air Force hitch so he could return there, but came up with a different plan.

"The more I prayed, the more I wanted to be a missionary in Kyrgyzstan," he said.

Sun Park, 23, grew up in Seoul, South Korea, in a Christian family.

She has lived in New Zealand and graduated from the University of Montana with a political science degree. She was looking for a way to work in international development and community building. When she learned about SMAT, it seemed like a logical next step.

What she didn't bargain for was falling in love. She and Cummings recently married and plan a wedding celebration for late May. Now they're considering what their next steps will be after they finish the program in August.

Kyrgyzstan — a mountainous, landlocked country at China's southwestern edge — is fine with her.

In fact, she didn't really want to come to Michigan, because the terrain is comparatively flat: "I really love mountains," she said.

Chevy Burnham is a recent SMAT graduate preparing for a foray abroad this summer.

Burnham came to SMAT from his home in Southern Illinois, graduated last year and is now a school employee.

This summer, he'll spend a month and a half in Kenya, keeping mission planes flying out of Nairobi.

He talked about his calling as he changed the fuel filter on a bright-yellow, two-seat Cessna 140A.

"I'm attracted to this kind of work because personally, I like to get my hands dirty," said Burnham, who became a Christian at 19. "And it's a greater purpose found in Christ."

Mechanical skills are the means to an end, he said.

"It all starts with a zeal for God, a heart for God, and obedience to the great commission of spreading the gospel," he said. "Then it's a love for people."

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