Faith in Flight
From Moody Spokane to the Congo, David and Ashley Petersen commit their lives to share the love of Christ through mission aviation
by Nancy Huffine
When David Petersen was eight years old, he wrote an essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up: a missionary pilot.
“I’ve wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember,” David says. “My own mother doesn’t even know why, but I wanted to do mission aviation since my first ability to write. My mother said the first little essay that I wrote was about wanting to do exactly this.”
In 2006, David went to Moody’s Spokane, Washington, campus to major in aviation. “I selected Moody after a lot of research that I had done in high school that showed Moody was the best training for the path of missions I was trying to go on,” he says.
While the Moody Aviation program strives to give its graduates the most advanced mechanical and technical training, Spokane Campus Dean Jim Conrad says that a Christ-centered, biblically based focus is always central to the curriculum.
“Our passion is to train missionaries who use the tools of aviation to advance the cause of Christ to the ends of the earth,” Jim says. “We begin with the end in mind, knowing that it is the truth of the gospel that our graduates represent to a watching world that desperately needs Christ. Bible and theology courses are interwoven throughout our five-year curriculum.”
Finding his life partner
At the Spokane campus, David not only found the biblical education and aviation training he needed to accomplish his goals; he also found his life partner.
“Moody Spokane was really small back then,” Ashley Petersen recalls. “The entire school was about 70 students. They asked for volunteers for the Moody chapels from the student body to create different worship teams. David and I both sing, and David plays guitar. We got put on the same worship team together.”
The couple married in 2008, and David graduated in 2012. Dan Churchwell, who taught a senior capstone class for the aviation campus when David and Ashley were newly married, remembers the couple well.
“My wife and I enjoyed hosting students at our home,” Dan remembers. “That provided a level of hospitality that is difficult in a classroom setting. I soon began to think of Dave as a friend, not merely a student. He introduced us to Ashley, and she and my wife became close friends over shared interests in gardening and bread-making.”
He continues, “My wife, Julie, would often comment about Ashley’s encyclopedic knowledge on caring for chickens and goats as well as the lost art of food preservation. All of that would benefit them tremendously years later when they created their homestead in Congo.”
Alumni David and Ashley Petersen in Congo with their kids
Heart set on Africa and MAF
A child of missionaries in French-speaking Burkina Faso, West Africa, David wanted to return to Africa, and he knew who he wanted to fly for.
“(Even before leaving high school) I was fairly certain that I would join Mission Aviation Fellowship based on my research,” David says. “Moody Aviation is on their list of schools that allows for a direct transfer without corporate experience in aviation. I had no interest in working in the commercial world.”
David Holsten, president and CEO of Mission Aviation Fellowship, says that Moody Aviation’s Christ-centered focus is the foundation that provides the vision and the stability that MAF looks for in its pilots.
“We look for men and women who, above all other things, have a strong relationship with Christ.
“They need to be technically skilled, able to operate to the standards that we have in place,” says David Holsten, a fellow Moody Aviation graduate. “But we want them to be passionate about using aircraft cross-culturally as a ministry tool to impact the lives of others physically and spiritually.”
Adjusting to life overseas
David and Ashley joined Mission Aviation Fellowship in 2013 and moved to Albertville, France, for language school the following year when Ashley was pregnant with the first of their two children. In 2015 the Petersens moved to Nyankunde in the Democratic Republic of Congo where David’s knowledge of French and his life experience in Africa eased his transition into the culture.
Things were different for Ashley who, prior to language school, had never traveled internationally. “The farthest I’d ever been away from home in Idaho was Yellowstone National Park!” she says with a laugh.
“My parents were super nervous for me, but David was ‘the one.’ God brought me to Moody. He had a purpose for that, and I believe fully that it was to meet and marry David.”
In Congo, Ashley assists with staff orientation, and she loves being able to focus her time on her children and the needs of the family. David, MAF’s chief pilot and assistant director of operations, also values time with his family.
“One of my goals as ops director is to guard margin and minimize overnights away from family,” he says. “[MAF pilots] have choices as to how much of that you’re going to do locally on your base.”
Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot David Petersen serves in Congo.
MAF’s eastern base in Congo, the second-largest country in Africa, is a busy one. “In eastern Congo, we dispatch around four or five flights per day,” David explains.
“We generally fly around 130 hours, 1,300 passengers, and about 70,000 pounds of bags and cargo per month.”
Operating since 1961, MAF’s Congo base has a reputation for being one of the only safe operators in the country. Their established—and growing—number of clients and partners attests to their level of excellence and service.
David easily recites a list of just some of the organizations served by his base, including Wycliffe Bible Translators, Africa Inland Mission, Samaritan’s Purse, MedAir, SERGE Mission, YWAM, Seed Company Bible Translators, Panzi Hospital, and Voice of the Martyrs.
The base has also assisted a war reconciliation ministry, Doctors Without Borders, and other non-government organizations working in development and conservation.
Clear and present danger
In April of 2021, violence spurred by armed tribal and militia forces escalated and forced MAF to evacuate Nyankunde and move north to Bunia. At-risk tribal members, such as key hospital staff and others, were evacuated along with the missionary contingent.
David Holsten believes that God has put the Petersens in the right place but also a very difficult place. He says, “David and Ashley have served in a particularly challenging part of Africa. I’ve appreciated their perseverance in the face of difficulties.”
David Petersen agrees with both the “rightness” and the adverse surroundings of their location. He thinks back to the biblical education he received at Moody Spokane that laid a foundation for understanding the beauty, depth, and lament of Scripture.
“We have a very small circle of security, and on the outside of that, people die all the time from violent attacks,” he says. “We fly security evacuation flights—medicine and relief supplies. There are five million displaced people inside of Congo, and the suffering is unbelievable.
"Now when I read the Psalms and Lamentations, they make more sense to me.”
Shining light in spiritual darkness
Along with the adjustments to a new culture and a new language, Ashley Petersen has discovered a new perspective on a battle as old as time. “In a lot of religious circles in North America, spiritual warfare is not a reality in everyday life,” she says. “It’s something that is out there, but it’s not an active reality. But living here in such a dark place that is actively controlled by the enemy, you get a very different perspective.”
Ashley is grateful for friends and family who stay in touch across the globe as well as for new friends in Congo and for her MAF family.
“If you step into this [missionary life] as an active participant, God answers,” she says. “He can bring around you a team of people that can fight this battle with you. You see the unity that you can gain from fighting together.”
About the Author
Nancy Huffine is a long-time freelance writer for Moody Bible Institute and Moody Alumni & Friends magazine.