Knight of the Air
Former Wycliffe pilot awarded France’s highest tribute
What do General Dwight Eisenhower, Conductor Zubin Mehta and former Wycliffe pilot George Insley have in common? All have been recognized by France with her highest award for meritorious service: the Légion d’Honneur.
In July 2009, three Oregon (USA) veterans of World War II, who all played a part in the liberation of France from the Nazis, were accorded recognition of their contribution in a ceremony led by French Consul General Pierre-Francois Mourier. George Insley, 87, was one of the three.
George lives today with his wife, Jeanne, in Roseburg, Oregon. They reside in the house in which he was born back in 1922. Recently we had a chance to sit down with George in his home and find out a bit more – about his service as a B-24 bomber pilot during the war, and about his work supporting the cause of Bible translation as a Wycliffe pilot. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
George, where and when did you receive your first training as a pilot?
I had enlisted in January, 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor. I always wanted to be a pilot, so I had to enlist before I could be sent to pilot training. I was able to apply for the Aviation Cadet program. I had only been in an airplane once before that, for a flight around the field.
Describe what it meant to you, receiving the Légion d’Honneur from the French government.
I was surprised. I wasn’t expecting any awards.
Why do you think the French government selected you for this honor?
France was expressing their appreciation for being liberated from the tyranny of the Nazis. I was only one person of thousands who could have been selected for this honor. My whole crew and many other crews could have been selected, but so many of them are now deceased. At the award ceremony the other two veterans were foot soldiers who fought their way across France and Europe.
At one critical point during your service, you committed your life to Jesus Christ. Tell us about that.
I had actually accepted the Lord when I was in a desperate situation that was coming up. I was called to fly and I came in (to the briefing room) and I saw this ribbon on the map, going out from our base and going up to Berlin and back again. This was a long flight, and the forecast was for freezing rain all across Europe. The American forces had never bombed Berlin up to that time. I had had only about 2 or 3 missions before this, and I was frightened. So I said to the Lord, “Lord, I need a little more help.” I went out and fell on my knees and talked to the Lord about this. He gave me assurance, and I accepted Him at that time. So He took away my fears and gave me peace as I flew the rest of my missions. Although I was in some pretty serious flights, I was never afraid of making the flights after that, or fear of death. That was my assurance, from then on, that He was with me. I made the decision to follow Him from then on.
How would you describe your life as a follower of Jesus before the time you prayed that prayer?
I guess I was a nominal Christian. I had never really said, “Lord I need you” – or anything like that. I just accepted Him as being there and ready for me. I went to church; I went to Sunday school, probably from the time I was a pre-schooler. I sat through Sunday after Sunday, just accepting that He was “there for me” but I never really received Him. When I went out there (in the war) I knew I needed help, and He gave it to me. I officially figured that was my day of salvation.
How did the Lord lead you into service with Wycliffe, following the war?
I resigned from the Air Force in 1950, at a time they were lowering the number of personnel because of finances. I went down to the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) for 3 semesters. It was there that I heard about Wycliffe. They were in need of pilots. I was a pilot, so I took the challenge and flew with Wycliffe for roughly 30 years.
Where did you serve?
Most of their people at that time were going into the South American rainforests, and I went there as well. They needed my skills as a pilot. I actually met the founder, William Cameron Townsend. He wanted me to serve as a pilot because of the difficulty in getting the translators out to the interior where the tribes were. It would take weeks to go upriver by boat. But with the float planes, we could go up and land right at the translator’s door, and take them in and out.
I served as a pilot in Peru and Brazil. I was about 8 years in Peru and about 20 years in Brazil. We opened the Aviation Service in Brazil and were on field assignment for 35 years.
How did you and Jeanne meet?
We were at the same location in Yarinacocha, Peru. There were about 35 single women and about 5 single men, plus all the families that were around. The singles would often have parties. Little by little we got to know each other. I was in charge of assigning pilots to their flights. So when someone needed to go up the Urabamba River (where Jeanne was working), I made the flight. I would stop at Jeanne’s place on the way back and have a little fellowship. (Jeanne: “We had a flighty romance.”) Little by little we decided that we wanted to get married. We were married in 1957. From then on we’ve been together for over 50 years.
Can you give us an example of a situation where you really saw the Lord work on your behalf – where He gave you His protection or wisdom in a situation?
SIL Peru had a rule that we had to land on the water by 6 PM [ahead of darkness]. I was still about an hour from the airstrip when the sun was setting. In the tropics the sun sets quickly and it turns from light to dark quickly. So I called and said I’d be about 15 minutes late. But the director told me to land where I could and then fly in the next morning. So I found an isolated lake and landed there, and pulled into the grass in the shallows. I took a bath, ate and got ready for sleeping. It wasn’t easy to sleep in the plane. I had to string up a net for mosquitoes, and then remove one of the seats to allow me to stretch out with my head in the cabin and my body mostly in the baggage area. I managed to get asleep, but was awakened by a lot of splashing out there. I opened the door and shined my flashlight around. All I could see all around were these pink eyes all over the place – alligators! I guess I had just been taking a bath there, among the alligators!
What would you say was one of the biggest highlights of your career as a pilot with Wycliffe?
The biggest highlight was seeing people’s lives changed through the translated Word of God—whether it was flying a float plane filled with packaged Hixkaryana New Testaments for the dedication in their homeland in Brazil, or seeing Esther Matteson and the Piro language assistant finish translating the final verse of the Piro New Testament. She shared this joyous occasion with all of us as she always felt very strongly the importance of the whole team effort. It was the first New Testament completed in Peru.
(See more on George and Jeanne’s connection with work in Peru here.)
How would you compare your service to your country during the war with your service to your God as a missionary pilot with Wycliffe? How would you describe what each meant to you?
I joined the military because I felt it was my patriotic duty to help win the war and fight for freedom. During that time I also found Christ as my Savior. When I was released from the military, I realized that Jesus made a difference in my life and that I could be used by God to see others have the same opportunity of finding salvation in their lives. When I learned that Wycliffe Bible Translators were helping provide the Word of God in the languages of the South American peoples I was sold on their work and have given the rest of my life serving to this end. Besides, as a bonus I got to fly airplanes for 40 years! How is that for getting your cake and eating it too?
Another bonus was finding Jeanne as a soul mate and raising our three children while serving overseas.
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