Our Man in the Amazon

Date: February 1971
By: Robert S. Chatley
Magazine: Flight Magazine
Page: 24-25

Padre Guy Gervais is a French Canadian Priest who devoted years of training for the role of flying missionary. He is now Wings of Hope field director in South America.

He speaks in broken English but his French and Spanish are perfect. He does well, too, with native dialects. But his principal communication is with deeds, not words, and the airplane is his medium.

Padre Gervais took over the Amazon operation in 1968. His exploits over the “green hell” of the jungle where all surface travel is by boat or dug-out canoe reads like a Hollywood movie script. Wings of Hope in that part of the world is the Spanish equivalent, Alas de Esperanza. For thousands of miles up and down the tributaries and mainstream of the Amazon below Iquitos, Peru, the sound of any airplane engine represents American friendship to the natives because the Wings of Hope record of lives saved by emergency evacuation of sick and injured to hospitals and misery relieved by delivery of hard-to-get medicines and drugs has spread throughout the area.

Tooth-Pulling Flying Padre

Guy Gervais is a man of many parts – seasoned jungle pilot and mechanic who spent six years in Papua New Guinea before taking on the Wings of Hope assignment in the Amazon. While learning to fly he served in a hospital in Washington, D.C., where he had practical, rudimentary instruction in medicine and a lot of sociology. He even worked under the direction of an oral surgeon and became adept at pulling teeth – an art that comes in mighty handy as he makes his flying visits into the little Amazon villages where they’ve never seen a doctor or a dentist. If you were to build a set of specifications around the ideal missionary bush pilot, Padre Guy of Montreal, Canada would fill every requirement, including complete and undistilled dedication.

After taking the first floatplane into the Amazon in 1968, Gervais’ major task was to erect a single sideband radio network that not only penetrates every section of his jungle area but also permits weekly conversations either direct or by “patch” with Wings of Hope headquarters in St. Louis.

Father Guy’s first written report, dated 8 June 1968, was mailed out of Iquitos, Peru and covered his first week of operations. He flew a precious cargo from Iquitos to Estrecho on the Putumayo. A mission there had run out of flour and yeast for bread making, were dangerously low on critically-needed medicines and other items. The short hop in the 206 on floats replaced a long overdue three-week voyage by boat!

Emergencies in the Jungle

That first week he flew three emergencies. A two-hundred-mile run for a youngster who caught fire after splashing gasoline all over himself, a woman who had “danced the twist on a Saturday night” and threatened miscarriage and a third person from deep in the jungle suffering from tetanus – all three saved by the air ambulance.

Other typical cases included a woman who fell from a tree while gathering nuts, breaking her back, a young girl of sixteen who had gone into convulsions with tetanus and a young man who had been bitten by a poisonous snake. In another week he carried a government man from the ministry of education into eight villages where the schools had never had an official visit nor enough books to go around. The Wings of Hope airplane hauled in the books and the schools are open on a full time basis.

In a letter of thanks to Dr. John C. Versnel, a founder of Wings of Hope who had generously donated dental equipment to the Peruvian operation, Padre Guy wrote as follows:

“I have good news for you in terms of medicine. Since my arrival I had my first oral surgeries yesterday. Fourteen patients and three hours of work in Estrecho. I used the anesthetic you gave me and the three-point forceps. They are wonderful for the molars. I put in successful practice your advices: rolling in the socket. Many of these patients had not slept for weeks and yesterday we helped the sufferings. The grown people sat on a straight chair and the kids on the table.”

All in a Day’s Flying

The Padre’s reports are classics of colorful description . Here’s one covering a flight from Sargente Tehande, a village of 150 people on the Colombian border, where a typhoid fever victim had to be flown to the Iquitos hospital, a distance of 350 miles – four days by boat, 2 hours 45 minutes by Wings of Hope:

“The first doctor of Iquitos, Col. Joseph Cesar de! Aquila, took off with me on the mission. We landed and the sick man had his family there at the dock. I want to explain to you the loading in the aircraft. On the bank of the Putumayo was the Colonel doctor with 6 bananas on each shoulder, cap on his head and quite energetic for his 64 years because he was really giving orders, the same way my grandfather did when I was seven years old. Then the sick man, Lopez, shaking with fever. He had lost 18 pounds in a week. His wife Norma, age 27, was holding a 2-months old baby and three other kids beside her, plus boxes and bags. I must not forget the four hens. So I made the organization to put my 8 passengers, baggage and hens.

How It Works

“I suggested first that the airplane should be loaded with human beings and that these people could buy hens in Iquitos, The Colonel replied to me that these red hens were a gift from the villagers and he could not leave them behind and talking that way he grabbed two hens on each hand still holding his Colonel’s stick and walked onto the pontoons and like a young man he tried to climb into the airplane, he made the first step but fell on the front seat, still holding those famous hens. As I am still strong I gave him a powerful push and there the Colonel sat in the plane, the hens waving the wings and spreading clouds of feathers.

” ‘Good trip with your flying gift, Colonel,’ I said. Then Lopez, his wife and the four kids took places in the back and gave salutations to the villagers who wished us a felix viage, We had brought hope to them and after take-off I smiled to Lopez. His face and eyes filled with fever, he says to me, ‘Thousand of thanks, Padre, to come and fetch me, you save my life,’ This morning I checked at the hospital and he is recovering.”

Thanks To St. Joseph

Apparently St. Joseph, the patron Saint of families, is also the Padre’s patron saint. Many of his reports contain references such as:

“The interfaith aspect of Wings of Hope is always tormenting my mind for I wonder if I really do enough to promote it. Now time has come. Mr. Charles Hoynes, an evangelist who has his head well screwed on his shoulders, real good common sense, knows our program for over a year now and for May 25 his top managers from USA are coming. So I will be flying them into the jungle. He told me that his two superiors can throw some money in any project that makes sense. Let us hope in St. Joseph and that this will start flying more for the protestant missionaries here.”

When news came from New Guinea that a pilot-mechanic Benedictine brother was interested in joining up with Wings of Hope, Padre Guy, who had flown with the man out of Wewak from 1961 to 1965, wrote, “It looks as if St. Joseph is taking good care of us in the right time.”

All the aircraft in the world would be useless in missionary work without radio communication. The Amazon jungle system is excellent. They have nine installations at missions and one on a boat that plies the rivers full time with a missionary on board. On one occasion Padre Guy talked to the boat mission ary over a 1,200-mile distance from Iquitos, Peru to the confluence of the Putumayo with the Amazon in Brazil. “I think,” writes Gervais, “that the RF communication people will be happy to hear that their radios are powerful enough to transmit such distances loud and clear with no interference whatsoever.”

Army Friends Help

He has made friends with Peruvian officials throughout the country, notably in the larger headquarters town of Iquitos. The army-managed airport permits him to maintain a lean-to hangar for servicing. Recently, army officials have donated aviation gasoline to the cause. One mission held a bingo and raised $100 for the operation and gifts sometimes are made by grateful recipients of the service since actual payment is not permitted.

Once a year the Padre returns to his home station at Montreal, Canada and visits with the French-Canadian Wings of Hope group sponsoring one of the airplanes in the jungle. He often takes time off from his “vacation” to make a few talks and TV appearances in the States, and with his dedication and picturesque speech, is one of Wings of Hope’s most productive ambassadors.

Wouldn’t you agree that Padre Guy is quite a guy? Apparently St. Joseph thinks so, as do the thousands of Amazon jungle dwellers who depend on Wings of Hope.

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