Piloting Help for Haiti

Joe Karabensh ’85 has been flying to Haiti for 14 years. A pilot with Missionary Flights International (MFI) since 1996, he transports people and supplies for hundreds of ministries there.

When the earthquake devastated Port au Prince in January 2010, MFI couldn’t reach any of its contacts in the country. Anxious to assist, the organization sent a plane within 24 hours loaded with tarps and water purification kits.

Joe flew the second flight in and had to divert twice because the airport at Port au Prince closed. He finally landed amidst the hectic air space and found the situation much worse than he expected. The skyline of the city had crumbled. In countless tents lining the runways, medical teams treated badly injured people, performing amputations and repairing crushed bodies. In later weeks as he flew evacuees to Florida, he saw how traumatized the survivors were; some feared going inside any kind of building.

Faced with thousands of requests to deliver supplies and relief workers and evacuate people, MFI went to work. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing Team loaned the ministry aircraft, and MFI leased cargo planes as well. Truckloads of materials for Haiti kept arriving, and hundreds of volunteers sorted through it. While Joe did some flying, he spent most of his time organizing supplies and flights, often working 20 hours straight. “We never had a backlog of supplies,” Joe says. “It’s amazing how God orchestrated it.”

Haiti’s cholera epidemic has created new needs, and Joe made his first flight 36 hours after hearing about the outbreak. Within a week, MFI delivered 18 tons of supplies such as water purification kits, rubber boots and disinfectant.

Joe arrived at Westmont with an interest in missions after traveling to Mexico for a short-term project with his church as a high school student. During college, he spent a summer in Kenya with Student Missionary Fellowship building a church. Eventually he decided to major in religious studies with an emphasis in missions. Traveling with the Europe Semester exposed him to different ways to worship God, and the San Francisco Urban program introduced him to poverty in the inner cities. By his senior year, he knew God was calling him to be a missionary pilot. “I felt comfortable on the mission field, but not as a preacher,” he says. “I wanted to build things, and I’ve always been good with anything mechanical.”

Joe enrolled in a three-year aviation program at Moody Bible Institute, then based in Tennessee. Between graduating from Westmont and starting the training at Moody, he traveled throughout the country and met his wife, Wendy, in Vermont. He not only learned to fly and earned his commercial instrument rating, but he became a fully qualified airplane mechanic. “Missionary pilots need to be able to fix their own planes,” he says.

For several years, Joe worked as a mechanic and then as an instructor pilot and commercial pilot for Cape Air/Nantucket Airlines, which inspired the television show “Wings.” In 1996, after raising his support, he joined MFI. Today he also serves as executive vice president, works with customs, maintains the ministry’s computers, and flies to Haiti. Joe, Wendy and their three children, 22, 19 and 16, have made their home in Vero Beach, Fla. “MFI is a fantastic organization with a great group of pilots,” Joe says. “I’m here for life.”

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