MAF pilot missing - but not a MAF plane

Published 23 October 2008
On Thursday, October 16, a MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) pilot, Hadleigh Smith (23) of Sydney was reported overdue on a delivery flight in Australia's Northern Territory. He was flying a Cessna GA8 Airvan aircraft, for the Marthakal Yolngu Airline, a company owned by a local Aboriginal Council on Elcho Island.

Due to return at 2.30pm, his non-arrival was reported immediately. Australia Search and Rescue officials coordinated the effort which, over the following 24 hours, involved seven MAF airplanes, two AUSAR airplanes, two civilian helicopters and two military helicopters. MAF operations in Arnhem Land were also suspended to focus on the search, 336 miles (540km) east of Darwin.

On Saturday, Rob Owen, the CEO of MAF Australia reported that some cargo and a wheel had been recovered from the shoreline of Buckingham Bay, only 12.4 miles (20km) from Elcho Island. Local communities joined in the search by boat and on the land.

However, on Saturday AUSAR (Australian Search and Rescue) passed jurisdiction for the search to the Northern Territory Police. Whilst still involved in planning, AUSAR's physical presence was lessened. The search continued. Many local Aboriginal community members went out on the water in their own boats looking and some walked many kilometers of mangrove shoreline in search of Hadleigh. Nothing was sighted.

Hadleigh's father, Stewart Smith - a QANTAS engineer for 30 years - traveled from Sydney to be closer to the search, but had to return home as the days went by. He said to Rebekah Cavanagh of the Northern Territory News: "Hadleigh was a Christian man who loved God (he attended the Gymea Peoples Church in the southern suburbs of Sydney). We surely believe he is now with God. His spirit has gone to be with the Lord and we believe we will see him again one day.

"His flying was a real passion for him."

On Tuesday, October 21, the Northern Territory Police announced that they have suspended the air and sea search for the missing 23-year-old pilot in the Buckingham Bay area. Equipment is being brought in to try and find the aircraft believed to be at the bottom of the Bay, but this could take several days.

MAF's ministry in Arnhem Land is different to most other MAF programs. MAF has strategically placed staff in communities to fly or to manage their airlines, providing a service as well as a Christian influence that otherwise would not have been possible.

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