One of MAF's co-founders, former British Royal Air Force (RAF) Flight Lieutenant and Normandy Landings veteran, Stuart Sendall-King, passed away last week at the age of 98. He was one of the early pioneers to take light aircraft to the remotest parts of Africa in the aftermath of World War II.
Highly skilled, tenacious and dedicated to helping those in need, Stuart began a lifelong mission to reach the most isolated and forgotten people using aviation and technology. This vision is now MAF!
Serving as an aircraft engineer during the Second World War and ending his RAF career as Chief Technical Officer, Stuart nurtured a growing desire to use aircraft for good – helping to establish MAF in 1945.
Struck by the isolation of countless thousands of people living behind physical and economic barriers, Stuart, along with a handful of RAF personnel, set out to discover the extent of their needs. His determination and sense of adventure led him on a survey flight across eastern and central Africa in 1948 – a pioneering mission that shaped the course of Stuart’s future and paved a way forward for humanitarian aviation. Rallying funds and vision for MAF’s first aircraft – a Miles Gemini – from a handful of pilots and friends, Stuart and former RAF Squadron Leader Jack Hemmings, began a six-month survey flight to explore the basic question of whether aircraft could assist the work of humanitarian missionaries dotted across Africa. With little more than a map, compass and wartime RAF experience, the fearless pair plotted a route across Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and the Belgian Congo, using the River Nile as their guide. Discovering hazardous terrain and unimaginable needs, Stuart and Jack established connections with the missionary community and discovered that, in many places, the only way to bring life-transforming help to those living in remote areas was to build airstrips.
With the help of light aircraft, emergency cargo, missionary personnel and medical equipment could all be delivered safely and efficiently, saving many days of travel by treacherous or non-existent roads. It was an adventure of a lifetime – one that Stuart and Jack embraced with fearless determination and a healthy dose of pragmatic humour.
On one occasion, their trusty Gemini was climbing slowly through the rising valleys of Burundi’s foothills, struggling to reach an altitude of 8,500 feet to clear the mountains ahead. But as they approached the highest peak, a strong headwind dragged them down, and they unfortunately met a banana tree on their descent! It was a miracle that both men survived, although the Gemini was in ruins. Stuart depicted their early perils with artistic flair, noting, ‘Sometimes, we didn’t quite know where we were!’ They had lost the aircraft but continued the journey overland. Seeing now how hard this particular method of travel was, they became more passionate than ever about their mission to help the unreached.
The whole enterprise did not come without a strong sense of calling that led him to risk his life on many occasions to expose the need in some of the world’s most isolated communities. Meeting his wife Phyllis, a missionary working in Sudan in 1951, Stuart recalled memories from their early romance and adventures as young parents in his book Hope Has Wings – revealing a creative, humorous and extraordinary determination: ‘After a brief honeymoon, we moved into a room at the SIM headquarters. The plan was to overhaul the Rapide [aircraft] at Khartoum airport [in Sudan], and our room had to double as the MAF office. Phyllis soon took over accounts, paying invoices as well as typing innumerable letters to London, the Sudan Government and to missions. She also ordered spares for the plane. Some of these had to be stored in our room; we even kept a propeller under the bed! [Returning with the family from London to Africa] proved an epic flight – 12 days and 5,000 miles of flying. We stopped at many bizarre and outlandish places along the West African coast, spending nights in strange hotels or little rest houses. We’d wash the children’s nappies at night and spread them over our knees during the next day’s flight, turning on the cabin warm air to help speed the drying.’ By 1980, Stuart saw MAF purchase six Cessna aircraft, and he co-piloted surveys into Kenya, Ethiopia, Chad and Tanzania to launch MAF’s first five African programmes. As his young family grew, Stuart and Phyllis became accustomed to months of separation and the delightful anticipation of correspondence by telegram.
As MAF expanded, remote tribes hidden in mountains, unreached forests or near inaccessible swamps were slowly becoming known to the outside world. A growing number of experienced pilots followed to join the vision; adding to MAF’s capability and scope. Despite facing political turmoil, hostility and rapid change in Africa, the organisation Stuart helped found continued to expand to meet the growing needs around the world. With operations in Uganda, Madagascar and Mongolia, the fleet had expanded to 30 aircraft by the early 1990s. Stuart had returned to the UK to head up MAF’s operations and raise awareness of its cause. As demands changed and technology evolved, MAF became an asset when global disasters struck. Delivering aid for refugees and helping governments and NGOs to respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, famines and cyclones.
Today, MAF operates 138 purpose-built bush aircraft, employs over 1,300 staff – of which 1,000 are local personnel – and partners with more than 2,000 humanitarian organisations, including the UN, UNICEF, World Health Organisation, the Red Cross, Medair, Tearfund and Samaritan’s Purse. For 75 years, Stuart has been at the heart of MAF, which has grown and expanded beyond his wildest dreams. Since the initial hair-raising survey in 1948, MAF has held to its founding vision of using aviation and technology to deliver humanitarian assistance as a non-profit charity. Stuart committed himself to raising his own finances and survived on funding from churches and individuals from 1945-1986, when he handed over to a new Chief Executive. He then took a six-month sabbatical with his wife Phyllis, a woman to whom he was touchingly devoted, and who was never far from his side. Sadly, Phyllis passed away unexpectedly in 2003.
In 2016, Stuart was honoured by the French Government for his work during the Normandy Landings. He was appointed to the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur for his ‘acknowledged military engagement and steadfast involvement in the Liberation of France during the Second World War.’ In 2019, Stuart’s name was added to the list of inspiring men and women who have used aviation to write history, receiving the Award of Honour from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots for his outstanding and enduring contribution to aviation. From the end of World War II until his death, Stuart remained deeply committed to MAF, serving as CEO of MAF UK between 1970 and 1985 and becoming President Emeritus in 1987. From its small and struggling beginnings in post-war Britain, MAF now flies to more than 1,400 remote locations across 26 developing countries. Stuart leaves behind three children, 7 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren, all of whom describe him as a truly inspirational figure. ‘Stuart had a great vision and drive, but with it a wonderful warmth and humility – we all loved him because of his real, great sense of fun.’ - Ruth Whitaker, Chief Executive of MAF UK and a long-time friend of Stuart King.