The Flying Lutherans

While doing research in preparation for the Esther Expedition that I did with Noel in March, I read a book called “Mission Impossible,” by Ralph Covell. It is a history of the work of a particular Baptist group in Sichuan in the late 1940’s.

Among the more interesting stories he tells in the book, one in particular caught my interest, that of trying to fly from Chongqing to Xichang. The flights on CNAC (China National Aviation Corporation — one of 2 airlines in China at the time) kept getting cancelled. Here’s what he writes:

“In the midst of all this frustration, the chance came for me to give up on the uncertain CNAC flights and go to Xichang by the chartered Lutheran plane, the St. Paul. This Lutheran-sponsored DC-3 was the work horse of the missionary enterprise. Licensed in 1947 to operate in China, it had flown missionaries of every denomination to every province in China. In addition to its human cargo, it had carried freight, UNRRA relief supplies, hospital equipment, pumps, and jeeps. As the crisis worsened in China, the United States Consulate asked the Lutherans to use the St. Paul to evacuate missionaries from north China. The price tag of $200 for each flying hour was not prohibitive in view of its carrying capacity of of 5,000 pounds. Particularly was this true of the formidable terrain where our group wished to go.

The James Broomhall family had also been waiting in Chungking [Chongqing] to go into Xichang. When the St. Paul showed up for them rather unexpectedly one noon, Jim and Janet very graciously invited me to go along with them.”

Wait!  The Lutherans were flying an airplane around China in the 1940’s? And that airplane was named St. Paul?

Earlier this week, while I was in Wuhan doing a bit more Esther Nelson research, I came across a book titled “The History of the Chinese Lutheran Church,” by Harold Hsiao, which had this to say about the airplane:

“Something unique [that] happened during this period (late 1940’s) — and its importance should not be ignored but properly recognized –was the purchase of the St.Paul. In June 1946, [at the urging of] Dr. Nelson, the LWC (Lutheran World Federation) bought two small, old C-47 airplanes at a US Air Force war surplus liquidation sale. They were the St. Paul and the St. Peter, the latter being used for spare parts only. At the time, travelling in China was almost impossible as most of the roads had been destroyed during the eight-year Sino-Japanese War. Thus, the St. Paul became the ‘thriftiest, the fastest, and the safest’ means of travel within the country, bringing missionaries to and from their fields, transporting mission materials, and assisting the Chinese churches’ reconstruction in many ways.

The St. Paul begain flying on 4 July 1946, and in its first year alone made over 200 flights, serving not only the Lutheran churches in China but also the 24 Protestant denomenations and the Roman Catholic Church. The St. Paul transported fify tons of Bibles and one thousand tons of medical supplies to many parts of the country…

The St. Paul was’retired’ in 1950, when private airplanes were no longer allowed to fly in mainland China after the political change. ” (p. 154, 155)

So, the Lutherans had not one airplane, but TWO, and they bought them at an Air Force surplus liquidation sale! You can’t make this stuff up!

The plane eventually became part of China Air Transport, a CIA-run airline, which was the precurser to Air America. One aviator wrote about his experience with the St. Paul:

“During our China Mainland days we often saw an olive drab C-47, which was brightened with the flaming cross logo of the Lutheran World Mission. Its name was Saint Paul. The Saint Paul’s original pilot, Dick Rossi, claimed he answered control towers, “Amen, Brother”, instead of “Roger”.”
One site says that it crashed in the Gulf of Siam, near Hua Hin while in a training mission in 1954. Another site indicates that the plane was eventually sold to South Vietnam and was shot down in 1961.

It’s good to know that long before there were YouTube clips of “Lutheran Airlines”, there were actually Lutherans flying around….in China!

(Image source:                 You can see “St. Paul” written on the nose, just below the cockpit windows.

UPDATE: Noel is in Europe this month and found herself on a modern-day Lutheran Airline, called Augsburg Airways!


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9 thoughts on “The Flying Lutherans

  1. Cool story from this: the St Paul was sold to China Air Transport and with the proceeds Truth Lutheran Church in Kowloon, HK, was built. This is the church that Steve grew up in, and that his father, Phil Bauman, served for many years. I attended there as a teenager off and on for a few years..sung at weddings and learned to memorize scripture at the urging of my now mother in law:) Good heritage and wonderful use of the St Paul’s proceeds !!

  2. LOVED this story about planes! I have long been fascinated by the early flight adventures of the 1920s and 1930s when people from different nations were competing to make the first all around the world trip record. Our own MN Charles Lindbergh being one of them. Even Stalin got in on the frenzy and had Soviet aviators competing with their rustic planes. Also, my sister’s father-in-law was a mechanic for planes in China during WWII, they have a photo of him atop a small plane. This about St. Paul and the flying Lutherans makes sense to me.

    • In our church Sunday, for Missions Week, we interviewed an older congregation member who was recounting some of his memories as an MK in China about 1943-1952. One thing he mentioned was seeing two Lutheran-owned airplanes, the St. Peter and the St. Paul.

      This caught my interest so I googled it and found your post. How interesting!! He said that the St. Peter crashed, but the St. Paul was still flying. He was just a boy under 10 at the time.

      • Thank you, Eric for that comment. The story of these planes is do interesting, and I love hearing about and talking to people who remember them, or actually rode on them.

  3. There other photos of the “St. Paul” in the book China Pilot by Felix Smith. One photo shows Luther’s Seal painted on the fuselage.