What Would Wycliffe Fly?
Editor’s Note: Though Wycliffe Associates and Wycliffe Bible Translators have similar names and were one time related organizations, they are today separate organizations.
John Wycliffe, who famously translated the Bible into English, was one of the seminal figures of the Reformation. But he was more than a translator. He was an outspoken critic of clergy opulence. He wrote tracts condemning the luxurious lifestyles of many church leaders.
One wonders what Wycliffe would say about the private airplane owned by Wycliffe Associates, an airplane apparently used by WA’s President Bruce Smith and other Wycliffe Associates senior executives to court wealthy donors.
Wycliffe Associates’ plane is a high-performance turboprop called a TBM 700. The plane was introduced in 1990 and is no longer manufactured, but used models are typically $1- to $1.5-million. It’s successor, the TBM 900, sells new for about $4-million. The ministry keeps the plane at Orlando Executive Airport.
Bible translation organizations that operate in road-less parts of the world often use aircraft for basic transportation. Mission Aviation Fellowship, Samaritan’s Purse, and JAARS (formerly Jungle Aviation and Radio Service) have used airplanes for decades to move personnel and material to remote parts of the world.
However, an examination by MinistryWatch of flight records obtained from FlightAware by the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation found that the Wycliffe Associates aircraft engaged in no such work. Flight records for the last six months found that the most distant airport the plane landed in was in Reno, Nevada. Indeed, the vast majority of the destinations were not remote locations at all, but major U.S. cities, including Atlanta, San Antonio, Nashville, and St. Louis. Almost all of the smaller destinations – including Wichita, Naples, and Tuscaloosa – had commercial airports.
The only destinations too small for commercial flights appear to have been re-fueling stops. For example, on the trip to Reno, the plane made a 30-minute stop in Andrews, Tex., population 13,000, 30 miles east of the New Mexico border.
In short, the plane went to destinations that could have been visited far more cheaply on commercial flights.
How much more cheaply? That’s hard to determine without knowing information Wycliffe Associates will not disclose. (Repeated requests for information from Wycliffe Associates went unanswered.)
However, the fixed costs of owning a TBM, according to a TBM owners group, are about $6,000 per month. The operating costs are about $2 per nautical mile. A September flight the Wycliffe Associates plane made to Atlanta and back to Orlando was about 1000 nautical miles, or about $2000 – not including the fixed costs. A round-trip ticket on a major airline ranged from just over $100 to about $300, depending on the time of day. The TBM 700 seats five people plus a pilot. So even if the Wycliffe Associates was full, it would still have been far cheaper to fly commercial.
Wycliffe Associates President Bruce Smith is a pilot who has the ratings to fly himself in the TBM 700. At least one other Wycliffe Associates executive, Brent Ropp, is also a pilot with sufficient ratings to fly the high-performance plane.
Some executives who fly in corporate planes say the cost of ownership is more than made up in the time saved. That may be true for corporate executives making millions of dollars per year. Warren Buffett – who for years was the richest man in the world – famously said the cost of corporate aircraft was never worth the cost in financial terms. In fact, when Buffett’s net worth topped $50-billion and he finally decided he could afford his own plane, he ironically named it “Indefensible.”
Another irony of using the time-savings argument for the Wycliffe Associates plane is this simple geographical fact: the offices of Wycliffe Associates are nearly adjacent to Orlando International Airport, the home of most of Orlando’s commercial flights. The Orlando Executive Airport where WA’s plane is hangered is a half-hour from Wycliffe Associates’ offices – on a day when there’s no traffic.
Also, if the executives of Wycliffe Associates are so pressed for time that they need a private aircraft, it’s hard to explain why the only trip the plane took in January was a one-and-a-half hour trip that began in Orlando and ended in Orlando. Again, Wycliffe Associates would not answer specific questions about individual trips, but experienced aviators told MinistryWatch that could have been a part of the plane’s maintenance routine.
Wycliffe Associates is not the only Christian ministry with its own aircraft. Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, Mac Hammond, Joyce Meyer, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Daystar, Perry Stone, and Kenneth Copeland all own aircraft. Using ministry resources for personal use is prohibited by IRS regulations, but the IRS almost never investigates tax-exempt organizations. Of the more than 1-million tax-exempt organizations in the country, less than 10,000 get audited each year.
It is not possible to tell if any of the flights in the FlightAware data were personal, or who made the trips. Most Christian ministries fill out a Form 990, which does require an organization to disclose ownership of aircraft, and if the aircraft is used personally. However, Wycliffe Associates classifies itself as a church and does not disclose this information to the public.
Wycliffe Associates recently resigned from its membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The resignation came while it was under review for violation of the ECFA’s financial and ethical standards. The ownership of the plane did not play a factor in the review of Wycliffe Associates, according to ECFA President Emeritus Dan Busby. “While we looked at various factors in relation to ECFA’s standards, our concluding focus was strictly on the accuracy of WA’s communications with donors and whether those communications established realistic expectations in donor’s minds in terms of what the gifts would accomplish.”