The Missionary Pilot

by | Feb 6, 2021 | Articles, Prospects 2021

Davin Bennett doing pre-flight checks ahead of a mission. His face mask bears the name of his blog, Flying by Faith, where he shares stories about his missionary work. Martin San Diego/Washington Post


Deaths, meltdowns, valor

Ever since the coronavirus spread to the Philippines early last year, sparking prolonged and painful lockdowns, FOCAP journalists have scoured the treacherous front lines of the pandemic to chronicle its cataclysmic impact in the country—from the menacing rise in infections and deaths to the crippling economic downturn.

Wearing their N95 masks, face shields and, at times, hazmat suits, they filed grim dispatches and harrowing images from hospitals, quarantine centers, morgues and other COVID-19 hotspots.

They also told stories of valor and hope.

The Missionary Pilot

By Regine Cabato, Washington Post

A Jamaican missionary helps solve pandemic emergencies and logistical nightmares with his tiny airplane

“It’s in the nature of years to feel exhausting in retrospect,” Filipino-American essayist Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker, in an article titled “The Worst Year Ever, Until Next Year.”

That was in 2016, the year of the U.S. presidential elections that propelled Donald Trump to power. At the time, Tolentino worried that the feeling was a result of the invasive way news was consumed through social media – at once “too intimate, too aggressive.”

Never has that collective feeling been more exacerbated than four years later, when a global pandemic came on top of a climate crisis, eroding democratic freedoms, and violence around the world. Locally, we experienced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, an economic recession, and record unemployment.

In the last few months of 2020, photojournalist Martin San Diego and I got the rare opportunity of covering  good news during a notoriously bad year. Martin found Davin Bennett, a missionary pilot based north of Manila, through his Facebook page. Through his organization, the Philippine Adventist Medical Aviation Services, the 34-year-old Jamaican had ferried almost 200 people across the northeastern Philippines when we went to meet him in October.

The result was a photo essay of a day — or two days, to be exact — in his life, as he transported stranded passengers, non-coronavirus patients, and donations among other cargo on a small plane across Cagayan Valley and Batanes.

The photos Martin took were breathtaking: a young mother holding her baby as she looks out at a bird’s eye view of the valley; a sweeping drone shot over the unpaved runway from where the plane takes off; and Bennett closing the hangar after a long day of shuffling passengers back and forth.

Isabela, one of the provinces to which Bennett flies, is cut off from the cities by the Sierra Madre, the longest mountain range in the country. A journey around it – almost impossible amid pandemic travel restrictions – could last up to two days. A quick flight over it cuts that trip to half an hour, making it an essential, life- saving service for the poor, who could have died of preventable causes.

This assignment followed previous photo essays and profiles of health workers, low income families, and struggling overseas Filipino workers – people who bore the brunt of a world rattled by the coronavirus. For weeks, even months on end, we’ve seen the same headlines of a rising case count and death toll, weary frontliners, and human rights violations.

In e-mails I received in the week since our story was published, readers thanked us for covering the story. One wrote that it gave her hope “that not all kindness has … evaporated from this world.” Interviews with different press outlets and donations followed our visit, Bennett told us afterward. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness shared the story on social media.

But just after our story went online on November 10, news of the floods in Cagayan Valley broke. Whole towns and villages were submerged. Just like that, good news got swept up.

Covering good news in today’s context is cautiously celebratory — it cannot be excessive, lest you run the risk of idealizing, glorifying, and romanticizing individual good deeds when what is needed is structural change or intervention. In narratives of climate crisis, audiences have already been calling out the normalization of resilience at the cost of accountability.

When covering this story, it felt good to take a break from a dismal cycle of breaking news. There’s a lot of editorial decision-making that goes into the release of good news – accuracy, context, framing, sensitivity, and timing among others – but for journalists and audiences who are burned out after witnessing one tragedy after another, a seasonal light story can serve as a reminder of why we write, and for whom: ordinary individuals, making good with what they have, who are at the heart of an issue.

It is to these people that we are most accountable.

Bennett helps Glenn Fajardo unload his bags. Fajardo had a gallbladder operation in Tuguegarao City, a procedure that is not available on the island province of Batanes. Martin San Diego/Washington Post
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