Zach and Hannah Wilkinson share how God is preparing them for mission aviation
BY: TRAVIS K. KIRCHER
If you follow Zach Wilkinson’s Instagram account for any length of time, you’ll quickly discover three things.
He loves aviation. He loves photography. And most importantly, he loves his new bride, Hannah.
The latter is obvious as the pair speak on a conference call from their apartment in Wichita, Kansas. When Hannah is jokingly encouraged to “spill the dirt” on Zach, she giggles, and Zach replies, “She knows me better than anyone.”
Both Florida transplants – he from Bradenton, she from Daytona Beach – they have differing views of the Kansas climate. He likes snow. She doesn’t. “I did live in Colorado for, like, two years of my life,” Hannah says. “But then I came back to Florida. So I mean, I know what cold is like, but I still don’t like it. I don’t want it to snow. I want it to warm up.”
“I miss a lot of things from Florida, but Wichita is okay,” Zach says. “Kansas is pretty cool. The sunsets are really nice, they’re just not over oceans. That’s the big difference.”
But in the coming years, Zach and Hannah both say they hope to make an even bigger move to even more diverse climates – leaping not just states, but continents – as they deploy to the mission field: Zach as a missionary pilot, and Hannah as a nurse.
The aviation bug
Missionary aviation wasn’t always a part of the equation in Zach’s life. In fact, for a while, aviation was little more than a childhood hobby.
“I had airplane toys, and built models, and had airplane wallpaper,” Zach recalls. “Warbirds, mainly, were my favorite. My greatest interest was World War II aviation.”
Then came his first airplane ride. Or rather, his first ride in a small, general aviation airplane. (“I had been on commercial flights before that, but I don’t really count those, as those aren’t really airplane rides,” Zach explains. “Those are like bus rides in the sky.”)
That flight – a biplane ride at the Fantasy of Flight museum in Orlando – came when Zach was around 14 or 15 years old.
“It was pretty cool,” Zach says. “It was an open-cockpit airplane. It was a nice, cool, sunny Florida day with good visibility and the perfect sky. And I liked being low to the ground – relatively low to the ground, compared to most airliners – and being able to see everything real well.”
It proved to be a bonding experience for Zach and his father, who accompanied him on the flight.
“My dad had an interest in airplanes, but he was never a pilot,” Zach says. “But he kind of encouraged that in my life: he took me to air shows, and I think he enjoyed having a son who was into airplanes.”
Growing up in Bradenton, Zach’s family was also devoutly religious.
“I grew up in a family who knew Christ, and they encouraged me in my walk to follow Christ,” Zach says. “I’ve kind of always grown up knowing great Christian people and having good leadership and good peers and good family – grandma and grandpa, and really everyone.”
As time wore on, Zach busied himself with church and school activities. Aviation – at least in the sense of pursuing a pilot’s license – was not part of the picture.
All of that changed during Zach’s junior year at Bradenton Christian School, when, on a lark, he decided to take his first flight lesson. As before, his father came along for the ride.
“I took a discovery flight in Florida – the Sarasota airport there, which is right near Bradenton,” he says. “ It was in a [Cessna] Skyhawk. I had a good time. We were going along the coast and saw the beautiful coastline. It was easy for me and I went on to take more lessons.”
It was then that Zach was unwittingly bitten by the aviation bug – a malady that claims so many other victims, as well as their wallets. Upon graduating high school, Zach quickly enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
The Behal detour
For anyone seeking a job in aviation – particularly during a pilot shortage – the “obvious” career path leads straight through the airlines, but Zach wasn’t so sure.
“As I learned more about airline flying, I didn’t dislike it, but I thought, ‘I don’t know if I really want to do that kind of flying for the rest of my life,’” Zach explains. “Because the airlines are a very one-path, very vertical direction. I mean, you build hours, you go to a regional airline, you go through a mainline carrier, and when you’re 65, you retire. I wanted more opportunities to do a broader scope of aviation, and also tie in my faith with that.”
Zach’s prayers would be answered when he ran into Brian Behal, a recruiter for Mission Aviation Fellowship, during a career fair at Embry-Riddle during Zach’s freshman year. Behal introduced Zach to MAF’s mission of “sharing the love of Jesus Christ through aviation and technology so that isolated people can be physically and spiritually transformed.”
Suddenly for Zach, a whole new world was opened up. “I may be biased in saying it, but I think the type of flying that the missionary pilots do – from a pilot’s sense – is way cooler than flying in airlines,” he says. “The airlines – I made that quip earlier about being a bus driver in the sky – whereas the mission aviator, they are directly involved in helping people who desperately need help and who otherwise don’t have forms of transportation. And you’re flying through mountains and valleys and you might even be a seaplane pilot and land on lakes and rivers. You’re always invested in people’s lives and communities, moreso than just an airline pilot.”
“To me, that’s like the greatest combo you could ever do, is do something as cool as flying airplanes, but also serve and seek the lost with that capability.”
As the years went by, Zach says he would continue to attend career fairs at Embry-Riddle. Each time, he says he would walk past the airline representatives and head straight for Brian Behal at the MAF booth. As time wore on, he obtained his private pilot’s license, his instrument rating, his commercial rating, his multi-engine endorsement and his CFI rating. There was, however, one thing that troubled him – one thing he lacked.
MAF prefers that its missionary pilots also have an Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) mechanic’s rating – something Zach didn’t have. And as his college career was rapidly coming to a close, it was something Zach would have neither the time, nor the resources to pursue.
It was a problem Zach – and God – would revisit later.
Romance in the sky
Meanwhile, God was raising up another of His Florida children – and her life
was about to intersect with Zach’s.
Nineteen-year-old Hannah Apking had been working at Chick-fil-A and was about to graduate with an associate’s degree in sciences from Daytona State College.
“I had to work a lot,” Hannah says. “I didn’t get a lot of school done because I had to work a lot.”
“She got her associate’s debt-free because she is super-cool,” Zach says.
“That was always a goal of mine too,” Hannah says. “Like, I never wanted to go to a university right off, and I didn’t want to get into a bunch of debt.”
Zach had recently graduated from Embry-Riddle and was flight instructing, when a friend of his – who knew he had an interest in photography – asked him to take aerial pictures of two airplanes: a Cirrus and a Cessna Skyhawk.
“So on a particular day, we were doing a photo mission with a Cirrus and a Skyhawk,” Zach says. “And, well, simply enough, the pilot of the Cirrus brought his girlfriend along for the photo mission, and his girlfriend’s friend was none other than Hannah. So Hannah was there. So when I met them at the airport to jump in the plane, there was Hannah. I met Hannah.”
She was 19. Zach was 23. They hit it off. The next day, the four of them went bowling. Zach asked her out two weeks later.
As time blissfully wore on, their relationship deepened. They both shared commonalities: a strong Christian family heritage, and a desire to serve and help people – Zach through missionary aviation, and Hannah though nursing.
“I always preferred science and stuff, more than everything else in school,” Hannah explains, recalling her pull toward a nursing career. “But later in high school, I needed to pick a career, but I didn’t know what to do. But I kinda wanted to help people. I felt like that’s what I should be doing. I just felt like that’s where I was supposed to be headed.”
Before long, Zach knew it was time to propose. Hannah says she kinda-sorta knew what was going on, because Zach dropped a MAJOR hint when he went to buy the ring.
“Like, a month before, Zach was like, ‘Hannah, I’m gonna go on a special errand,’” Hannah laughs. “And I’m like, ‘Why would you tell someone that? Why would you tell a girl you’re going on a special errand?’ So I knew what he was doing, pretty much.”
Both Zach and Hannah recall how the proposal happened:
“It was very simple, because I’m pretty sure that’s how both of us preferred it,” Zach says. “We were on a beach at sunset, and we were the only people around. It was pretty cool.”
“Yeah, it was simple,” Hannah says.
“It was simple,” Zach repeats.
“But good,” Hannah reiterates.
Hannah says, again, there were tell-tale signs of what was about to happen.
“I was surprised but I kind of thought it was happening, because I saw, like, a little square box in his pocket,” she laughs. “But I kept telling myself that it wasn’t happening because I didn’t want to get my hopes up…”
“…in case it was a gumball or something,” Zach explains.
It wasn’t a gumball – and the two were married in Aug. 2017.
The Hillard-Parris detour
After graduating from university, Zach continued flight instructing, racking up flight hours and fulfilling a contract to do so for Embry-Riddle. Which was not a problem, because he says he fell in love with teaching.
“The impact that it has on the individual is what I enjoy so much,” he says. “You can be a part, really, of someone achieving their dream. That might be a little bit cliché to say that, but helping people achieve their goals, and genuinely wanting someone’s success was my everyday job. And airplanes were in the middle, so it was a spectacular combo, you know?”
At the same time, his relationship with MAF deepened. During an MAF event at the College of Missionary Aviation in Florida, Zach and Hannah – before they were married – met Regional Manager Dina Parris and MAF Southern Region Coordinator Scott Hillard, both of whom pressed him to join MAF’s advocate team.
“I actually got a ride on the Kodiak because I signed up to be an advocate,” Zach laughs. “I don’t know if they bribed me, but that was included in the deal. Scott Hillard gave up his ride on the Kodiak for that particular day because I agreed to sign the advocate paperwork. It was God connecting me with MAF even closer at that point.”
The God detour
But last year, Zach’s contract with Embry-Riddle ended, and things got real. Really real. Remember the A&P rating MAF wants its missionary pilots to have? Zach still didn’t have one – and as far as he could tell, he had no prospects for getting one.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Zach says. “That was the big, empty unknown: how was I going to become a mechanic? I had really exhausted all of my options. Going to school wouldn’t really work. It was really the scenario where I could have a different job and could make enough money, but would never have enough time to go to school. Or I could go to school, and I would have to take out large debts and loans and I wouldn’t be able to work.”
It seemed as though Zach was going to have to set his dream of becoming a missionary pilot aside – at least for now. Maybe for a long time. Maybe for a really long time. So instead, he spent eight months courting Textron Aviation in Wichita – a company he had previously interned with, hoping to land a position as a factory training pilot there. It wouldn’t give him any mechanics experience, but at least he might make enough to go to school for it later.
“So for the longest time, I thought that was it – that was the path for me because the mission aviation thing just wasn’t going to happen right now,” Zach says. “But God was working in the background, of course, as He always does. And when I least expected it, He opened up another opportunity and it was perfect. I had completely taken God’s ability to make things happen out of the equation. He taught me a lesson, I guess, is what I’m saying.”
On a lark, Zach decided to go to the “Experience MAF” event in Wichita. That’s where MAF advocate John Penny introduced him to Joel Mugglin of Mid-Continent Aviation Services (MCAS). Mugglin explained that he needed to hire a pilot – one who could work in the mechanic’s shop as an apprentice, eventually getting an A&P.
“There’s a lot of cool things put together in this. They have a Kodiak. I like Kodiaks,” Zach says. “They have a mechanic’s shop, and I could work in the mechanic’s shop and receive the experience I need to become a mechanic. So all of a sudden, in a matter of one month, compared to my, about, eight months of talking with Textron and thinking that that was the option for me, God gave me every single little thing that I needed.”
Then in a surprising turn of events, Zach was offered both jobs. In the end, just before he and Hannah were married, he chose the MCAS position, which, like the Textron job, is also in Wichita. Now, he says he is flying, while at the same time earning experience to ultimately get his A&P rating – and getting paid to do it. He says this will take about two years. At the same time, Hannah will be going to school to pursue a nursing degree. They hope to be ready to deploy to the mission field within 4-6 years.
“So it was an excellent turning point,” Zach says. “When in life, there is an open area of unknowns, that’s where God does His best work, because that’s where He is.”
Where will they go? Zach and Hannah say they aren’t sure yet. Indonesia sounds intriguing, since Zach flies Kodiaks and that’s where Kodiaks hang out. But Africa and the Congo are interesting too. Then there’s Haiti, where they could stay close to home.
“We’ve got a map that I put up in our apartment that I just kind of stare at every once in a while,” Zach says. “I’ve put up pictures of MAF events and people who I’ve met…and there are pictures of the Kodiak and the MAF calendar is there, and little quotes and things and some Scripture. And I put pushpins in all the countries where MAF-US has bases…just so I can be mindful of how many different places are in the world.”
Wherever they go, Zach says he wants to leave it up to God’s plan, because by now, he says he’s learned that God knows what He’s doing.
“He’s got a good plan,” Zach says. “And it’s way better than mine, and He’s given me plenty of evidence that this is the way I need to go.”
TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is an advocate for MAF, based in Louisville, Kentucky. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.