Gracia Burnham, EAA 883212, of the New
Tribes Mission, Philippines
Note: While celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary in 2001,
missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham were kidnapped by the Islamic rebel
group Abu Sayyaf and held captive for more than a year in the southern
part of the Philippines. Martin, a pilot for the New Tribes Mission, was
tragically killed during a June 2002 commando raid by the Philippine
military attempting to rescue them. Gracia, who resides in Rose Hill,
Kansas, and has authored two books on their ordeal, provided the following
information regarding Martin's 16 years of service as a pilot for the
Type/model aircraft operated in mission
or public benefit flying?
Where is most of your flying activity? My husband, Martin, was a pilot
for New Tribes Mission in the Philippines. He flew Super Cubs, Helio
Couriers, Cessna 180s and Cessna 185s.
When did you become involved in mission
flying and why?
Martin grew up in the Philippines. His parents lived and worked in a
tribal village in a mountainous jungle region. He attended boarding school
in Manila and in order to get home for vacations would fly in small
mission planes into the tribal village where his parents worked. This
began his love of airplanes, flying, and appreciation for the importance
of missionary aviation. Upon graduation from high school, Martin earned
his pilot and A&P certificates in the Wichita, Kansas, area. After
graduating from college he got specialized training for jungle flying and
headed back to fly in the Philippines.
What is the most memorable flight you
have ever had and why?
One morning, Martin was flying to Davao, a city on the island of Mindanao.
I was at the radio, flight following. Martin's voice cracked through the
speaker: "Uh, Gracia, we have a problem here…" Then the radio
went silent. I waited for the next word, but nothing came. I anxiously
radioed back, "Three-zero-nine, are you going to tell me what your
He responded, "I'm losing engine
power. There was a puff of smoke-and I'm not sure what it was. I'm over
the mountains right now and in the clouds; I'm trying to climb while I've
still got power to get as much altitude as possible to work with…"
And then it was quiet again. My palms began to sweat and I prayed with all
Some 10 minutes later, Martin called again.
He had gotten out of the cloud cover and could see the valley in front of
him. By then the engine had seized up completely and the propeller had
stopped, so he was gliding with no power. Another four minutes of silence
followed while I sat frozen in my chair. Then: "Okay, I'm switching
to Nasuli frequency to warn them that I'm coming. We'll be out of contact
for a little bit." Again, I held my breath.
"Gracia, we're on the ground; I made a
dead stick landing," he radioed. He had cleared the last fence with a
mere 50 feet of altitude left. The engine had pumped out all its oil
through a hole in one of the lines - but my husband was safe, thank God!
Later that day, when Martin walked in the
gate at our home, he glanced at his watch and said nonchalantly, "I
told you I'd be back around 10, didn't I?" We just looked at each
other and laughed.
What would you like EAA members to know
about the type of flying you do?
Martin loved his job of flying in the jungle. It is like he was born to do
it! He flew safely and accident-free for almost 16 years, until we were
taken hostage by the Islamic rebel group Abu Sayyaf, in the southern part
of the Philippines. After being held hostage for 376 days, Martin died of
gunshot wounds suffered during our 17th gun battle with the military (June
2002). The gun battle that killed him led to my rescue. Our adventures are
chronicled in the book, In the Presence of My Enemies.
Why is the Fly4Life program important to
EAA AirVenture 2009 attendees?
I'm pretty excited that the "normal" pilot in America is going
to get a chance to learn about relief flying and missionary piloting
through the Fly4Life Program. I'm thinking that there are some excellent
pilots out there that might want to take Martin's place overseas. Or they
might be able to find a place to "plug in" in their own
communities, using their aviation skills to make a difference. Aviators
are going to love the stories that those involved in relief flying have to
Gracia will participate in the Monday
evening program at Theater in the Woods.