Compiled by Barbara Kay
Dear AMA Family,
A number of you shared thoughts and memories of Bob and Neiba with me after they went missing. While the search has revealed nothing our hearts will not allow us to forget the times spent with them. In this letter I am including some of these communications so you can be blessed by these words. Several of you got to live with them in Venezuela and have a perspective of their lives in service I never saw. As a family we mourn, we remember, we hope.
As Bob’s sister I’ve known him more years than any of his friends. When we four kids made paper airplanes and had competitions in the living room I knew the pilot gene existed beyond our daddy. All of my brothers got their private pilot licenses, although Bob’s schooling came later in life. Both Bill and Bob pursued to the top ratings with a goal to carry the torch our father had laid down. Despite the challenges and losses in their lives my brothers have pressed forward while I cheer them on.
As I have shared for months, only God knows what has happened and where Bob, Neiba, Gladys and the others are. Not knowing has been very difficult. Though I can not explain nor understand the tragic situation I continue to trust that God is in control and has a plan. We have the ultimate hope of seeing them again. Here are your notes, stories, and memories.
I only made 2 trips to Venezuela for a total of about 8 months down there, but during that brief time Bob and Neiba became very close friends, along with Zerpa and the others.
Our prayer chain here in Colorado, as well as everyone I know and most of their friends are praying for Bob and Neiba. I, personally, have a sinking feeling in my soul about all of this; but you should know that I trust the Lord and know that they are all in His very capable hands.
How our hearts ache and yet we know that God is in charge and I with you believe that God's glory will shine forth in whatever the outcome. God's "bigger picture" far surpasses our "tunnel vision."
Pastor Rudy Harnisch:
Jesus knows where Bob and his crew are. He has their best interest in mind. In the hereafter all will be made clear. God's name will be vindicated. Eternity will stretch before us and all our experiences of the past will sink into insignificance when we can be in His presence. Keep courage.
Brian and Heidi McDonald:
We spent a couple of months living with Bob and Neiba at their home in Venezuela about two years ago. Bob taught me how to fly, and I enjoyed many flights with him. He is a FANTASTIC human being. Just know our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family, and all the hundreds who have been blessed by this ministry along the way.
Nick and Claudia Parks:
We spent some time with Bob and Neiba at their home two years ago preparing the base for the IRR group from Union College. The gracious and hospitality that they showed was fantastic. We really began to understand what it means to be a missionary by the example that they set for us. I believe in miracles and I also believe God is fully in control, knowing the end from the beginning.
May your days be filled with peace and love and faith, despite this waiting and terrible time of not knowing their whereabouts or situation.
Don and Rumiko Johnson
OCI field vice-president, & volunteers with GMI:
I have to say that though I didn't know Bob and Neiba intimately, I have followed their work since its beginnings. I remember Bob when he visited Wildwood with his family and together they played some of the most beautiful music on Marimba, trumpets, and I believe guitars too. I still have the record of the family playing heavenly music. My visit to Venezuela and the days I spent there at the base confirmed our recognition of their tremendous impact on the work for the people they loved. Their visit to OCI here in Tennessee last year was the last time we met them, and again we were blessed as they shared what God has been doing on the cutting edge of His work down there in Venezuela.
Bob has always struck me as one of the most humble men I know. As a pilot myself, I recognize the tremendous talents he exhibited, but most importantly I have admired his ability to evaluate risks, and weigh them against the call of duty and the trust he had in His God to guide and help him to accomplish the mission set before him. If in God's providence this turns out to be His final mission for Bob and Neiba and the folks with them, I have no doubt that this mission, too, will be accomplished with honor. We may never have all the answers now, but in God's time, I believe that a thrilling story will be told similar to the hundreds of thrilling stories Bob and Neiba shared with us from month to month. And what a beautiful thing to have faithful Neiba by his side on this special mission whose story still is waiting to be told!
I first met Bob, along with his siblings and parents, in 1968 when the Norton family arrived at Colegio Linda Vista in Chiapas, Mexico. My parents were volunteer missionaries there, and my 2 younger sisters and I were delighted to have other American children to play with!
There were four children in the Norton family. If I remember correctly, Billy was age 5, Bobby was 7, Buddy was 9 and Barbara was 11. Wednesdays were our play days, and we had fun playing games, exploring in the forest and inventing creative activities together. Mrs. Norton gave us all piano lessons.
To be honest, I can't think of anything outstanding about the Bobby I knew as a kid. The entire family was very nice, fun to be with, generous and very mission-minded.
I got to know the grown-up, mission pilot Bob through long-distance communication as our son Daniel worked with him in Venezuela, then as I created pages for his web site. He liked to keep things simple yet attractive.
Bob's spelling always amused me. Like my own son, he had difficulty reading and writing. I was often chuckled as web site photos came from Bob with titles such as "Pashients waeting to see the darcter." But Bob really shined in his skill as a pilot, his love and compassion for the suffering, and his willingness to serve wherever he was needed.
Bob's love for natural beauty and photography resulted in many outstanding pictures which I greatly admire. I long for the day when, with Bob and everyone he loved, we can admire the beauties of our Heavenly home for eternity.
Gary and Toni Lewis (serveing in Guyana):
I first met Bob back in 1976 down in Chiapas Mexico where he was living with his family at Bella Vista. I was working at Colegio Linda Vista and his dad, Elwin, came and picked me up in his Cessna 185 and took me out to Bella Vista. Bob and his brothers were there, and I stayed in the shed by the river with the boys. It was flying with Elwin that put the desire in my heart to become a “bush pilot” some day. I was already a pilot at that time, but seeing the great need and the benefit that a plane provides to remote areas, put a desire in my heart to one day become a bush pilot.
Several years later I heard that Elwin was killed while flying in the bush. I didn’t hear anymore of the family until I met Bob at Oshkosh Pathfinder Camporee in 2004. He was there with Gospel Ministries and it was great to see him again after all those years. He was a bush pilot now, and I hadn’t flown as a pilot since I had been with his dad. He told me they needed more bush pilots, but I didn’t see how I would ever get to do it, at least in the near future.
In 2006 our paths crossed again when he and Neiba invited us to come visit them in Venezuela to see if we would like to join them there. In Oct 2007, we moved to Venezuela to do some training with Bob before going out and starting our own base on the other side of the country. I had only a few hundred hours of flying in, but Bob was most helpful in teaching me how to fly in the bush. Unfortunately most of the 3+ months we were there, the plane that he was flying was lying in the bush upside down. So we got to work and live with them-- keeping the base up and bringing the plane out of the bush for repairs.
When I asked Bob how he got into this work, he said that he had heard a sermon at the school his sons were attending and the preacher had said, “We must be willing to put everything on the altar and follow Jesus.” Bob felt impressed to do just that. He was contacted by David Gates a short time later and asked if they would go to Venezuela as a volunteer pilot. So they sold everything and went out on faith that the Lord would provide. Bob said, “He has never let me down, although some months the finances were really tight, God has always provided.” It was His testimony that inspired us to step out and follow Christ by faith also.
Bob really liked flying and was an excellent pilot. When he took the plane to the shop for inspections and work to be done on it, he was there helping the mechanics as much as they would allow and overseeing what they were doing so that everything was done right.
When I asked him about maps for flying in the area, he said, “You learn the area so you know where you’re at and your ways of escape in case you need one.” He always checked in on the radio with Celso every 15-20 minutes, so someone back at the base would know where he was and where he was heading. He loved the opportunity to serve people in need, especially those deep in the bush that had no other access to medical help. The people there loved him because they knew they could count on him to come, even when no one else would.
Every time the government would try to stop him from flying, the local village captains and people would stand up to the officials and tell them, “No this is our plane and Bob is our pilot; he is the only one who will come to help us when we call.” The officials had to back down every time.
Bob was frustrated many times with all of the road blocks that were put in his way from every direction, but he said, “I work for God and until He tells me differently I will keep doing what I’m doing.” Bob and Neiba had put everything they had into the mission project; not many are willing to step out that far in faith and then live it. Bob not only flew in sick patients but had to transport them to the hospital himself many times; and then when they recovered, he would fly them home again.
To relax or lower his stress level, Bob would go play his keyboard, or fly his parasail. We used to go over there every Friday night and sing songs for sundown worship as Bob played on the keyboard or accordion. What a great way to begin the Sabbath.
Bob and Neiba are not only missed by the villages he served, but by his fellow pilots and friends. The next time we get to fly together we won’t need a tin can to fly in, we will be able to fly in outer space with the angels that flew with us here. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.
Benjamin Vinson (OCI—Kibidula):
In 2006 Bob shared his talents with me for many days, helping me sharpen my flying skills. He gave me much needed advice from his years of flying experience. All this he did free of charge and with a spirit of joyful service and love for our Lord Jesus Christ. I still think about what he taught me as I operate as a bush pilot in Tanzania, East Africa.
I first met Bob and Neiba at the Wildwood Lifestyle Center in Wildwood, GA. I visited with them in Venezuela in 2005 staying two weeks. The visit was very memorable by being able to help fly patients out of the villages, worship with them and share music together. Bob played on his keyboard while I played my flute. I loved being acquainted with them and their ministry.
Tim de la Torre (mission videographer):
Bob was an incredible Pilot and man. I remember the first time we e-mailed each other. I was preparing a trip with a friend to come down to Venezuela and make a film about mission pilots. In his e-mail, Bob had many grammatical errors and spelled phonetically. My friend and I looked at each other with this look like, "Are we sure we want to put our lives in this guy's hands"? When we finally met him and flew with him for the first time, we knew we were with a first class pilot. He was incredible. We learned later that he was dyslexic but that handicap paled in the light of his many gifts. He knew something practical about almost everything. Not only that, through the years following that trip, in my correspondence with him, I really grew to respect him more and more as a person. He truly gave all to serve others and it is my hope that people will be inspired by his story to serve God with their skills in whatever capacity they can.
I went down to Venezuela in 2002 and spent two weeks with Bob and Neiba. That was before they had the first airplane flying. On that trip I learned the story of the Davis Indians and our Land Cruiser broke down at one of their villages. Bob and I spent a week working on the plane to get it to pass the annual inspection. Since then I have had Bob and Neiba to my home in Collegedale numerous times for him to show students the work he was doing. I built a wood strip kayak and sold it with the proceeds going too their work in Venezuela. Bob was like a brother to me.
Brian and Susie McGrath:
Bob and Neiba touched our lives by the way they sacrificed consistently. Day in and day out, one long day after another, they gave all they had. What an example of dedication to the cause of Christ and the spreading of the Gospel. We learned a lot about hard work and commitment during our 5-week stay there.
Bob was also an excellent pilot. A vivid memory for me is when we flew into Kamarata to pick up an ailing child with malaria. The valley was socked in with clouds, but Bob knew that area so well that we flew right in and landed on the dirt strip with very limited visibility. I was impressed.
I was in Venezuela on two separate occasions; the first time was in 2002 and the second time in 2003. Each time I spent about 3 weeks there. I had some GREAT times with Bob flying, jamming to music with him at his house, and just touring around the Gran Sabana area in Venezuela. He's a very dear friend to me and I miss him dearly!
Here are some photos that show some fantastic memories that I had with him . . .
You know how Bob loved the greasy part of the airplanes!!! I think Bob's mansion in Heaven is gonna have some grease in it!
Here's Bob with my youngest daughter, Camilia.... they were sitting in the San Francisco Church in Venezuela. Bob had a very special place in his heart for children!
Here's Bob with his BEST BUDDY!!!! This is the Bob that I will always remember!!
Bob LOVED to take people sightseeing in Venezuela and was up for any kind of adventure! Here he is, trying to catch tropical fish with me!
Keep that plane filled up! You never know when we're gonna need to go back up in the air to get another patient! Notice the rainbow in the background . . . God's promise to Bob!
Bucklee and Shannon Eller:
Bob and Neiba are some of the most precious people we have ever met. They are truly the "salt of the earth". During the time we spent in Venezuela they were so gracious to open their home to so many people. We were really impressed at how much they loved the Amerindians and were willing to put their lives on the line for them. One special memory we have of them was having a candelight Agape Feast on the floor of their home. Both Bob and Neiba shared their testimonies and it was so touching to have a glimpse into their hearts.
During the time we were there the plane was down for repairs much of the time and Neiba had gone to another city for some medical care so we spent a lot of time with Bob. We spent hours just chit-chatting about life in the little hut there at the AMA base. We really hit it off with him and grew to admire so much his wisdom and practicality! We also were caring for a little baby named Jose. Bob was so cute with him! He loved playing with him and bouncing him on his knee. We have a really cute picture of Jose wearing Bob's cowboy hat!
I (Shannon) am not a fan of small airplanes, but I would have flown with Bob above any other pilot I know! He had so much wisdom about flying that he gleaned from his father and he just had the personality that made a good, safe pilot. Bucklee felt privileged to have the chance to work with Bob after having spent time with his brother Bill in Africa years ago. It was touching to us that Bob was willing to risk his life, even though his own father had died in a plane crash. It seems like most people would have not wanted to fly, but he chose that life knowing the dangers involved. In a way he was carrying on his father's work.
Although we didn't get to know Neiba as well, we just want to add that Neiba was so supportive of her husband and she was a vital part of the ministry.
We are better people from having known Bob and Neiba. We still hope for a miracle, but at least we know we will spend eternity with them and the people they have worked so hard for. One thing that we still remember Bob saying was, "I believe Jesus is coming soon and this is what I want to be doing when He comes".
Brent, Carol, Brentie and Tessa Hildebrand:
Our family lived in Maurak for 5 - 6 months over a 3 year span to provide medical care in Maurak and surrounding villages. Bob and Neiba welcomed us into their home for much of that time, sharing their kitchen, spare room, and bath, Bob's piano for the children to continue their music practice, their truck that ran thanks to Bob's loving care, and their friendship... singing on Friday evenings around the piano with Bob playing, hikes up the hill behind the school or in the jungle, watching Bob and my husband fly in his parasail. I get terribly airsick, Neiba shared her Relief Band to spare me on flights to the small village strips. We watched as they spent their lives serving. We prayed with them when it was too late to make a flight - committing lives to God's care... We always felt safe flying with Bob. We knew he didn't fly on his own, but that angels flew with him. Not only did he let my husband pilot fly, but also let our son take a turn as co-pilot.
Bob had a special way with God's creatures. Bob and Neiba spent time with us in our home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and visited Isle Royal in Lake Superior. Bob spent most of his time photographing the twin moose that had been born that spring. He was able to get closer to them than anyone, quietly waiting, watching, talking to them. The pictures are beautiful!
Though our experiences in South America were sometimes far from comfortable we always knew that we were where God wanted us, and that we were in His hands. Such is a peace not of this world. So it is even now with Bob and Neiba. They are in God's hands.
We trust the people they served to Jesus, the work they provided to His all-knowing provision and commit our lives along with yours in continued service until Jesus comes. Surely soon, we will be reunited and rejoice at how God has led!
Two summers ago my husband and I met Bob and Neiba on a trip to Isle Royle in Michigan. We struck up a conversation with him, and from the get-go I KNEW that there was something special about him. Bob had an angelic presence about him. I felt total peace and love coming from him as we talked. Of course, it was our loving God shining through him. I've never felt anything like it before, but hope to again. I look forward to seeing both of them in heaven...sooner than the world thinks. Bob was an inspiration!
My daughter, Sierra, and I were privileged to meet Bob and Neiba last summer as he was the campfire speaker and teacher of the missionary pilot ground school at Piedmont Valley Youth Bible Camp. A gentle man, Bob was very dedicated to the work God had called him to. Their lives here may have seemed to us to have been shortened, but I think they lived their lives to the full! Looking forward to seeing them in the sky again very soon!
Joe and Clarice Rudd
Having worked in Venezuela for more than 30 years, and closely with Bob for the last few years, I have seen firsthand the work he has done there. I cannot understand why things have gone the way they have. I have seen God do miracles through Bob, and I have seen him keep moving forward against extreme adversity. The work is in peril in Venezuela, and I wonder if God, in His Wisdom, knows that there is something coming that would have been more than Bob could bear.
Bob and Neiba were so much a part of our mission in Venezuela that I don't have any idea how we are going to proceed without them. Hundreds of people there owe their very lives to Bob, and Neiba took better care of the details; accounts, etc, then anyone ever has done before. We always knew that we could totally trust her.
My Sabbath school class had the pleasure of meeting Bob and getting to know him over the last few summers and had made his mission a project of theirs. If they have not survived, as would seem the case at this time, they would like to put a plaque at Morauk in his and Neiba's memory.
Bob and I talked for many hours during flights, and while he was in the U.S. at our house, about the difference between people playing at being missionaries and those who are real missionaries. Bob was the genuine article. I remember that while the government officials were meeting to try to stop his ministry he got a call for help and told the officials that he would like to stay and talk to them but someone was in trouble and he had to go. I saw this happen. I also saw how impressed they were with him and the fact that he felt that the mission was more important than their grievances. A lot was said after he left the meeting. I think that was why he was still flying long after all the others were forced to leave.
He worked hard and saved many souls. It is sad for those of us who were close to him, but it seems that God has chosen to allow him rest.
Michaela Penn Harnisch:
Bob and Neiba have become very close friends to me from the very start when we met. It was in October 2003 when I first went to La Gran Sabana (Venezuela), where the AMA - ADVENTIST MISSION AVIATION PROJECT had been running for years already. I got to meet them through Becky and David Gates, whom I met in Caracas, where I was living since my childhood. Once I met them, and once I knew about the mission projects they have, I fell in love with it and with them (Nortons and Gates). So we started planning in doing some mission work together. We, a group who went to visit them, started right then to help them for two weeks, and since that time have continued working together in different ways.
Here we were down in La Gran Sabana with Bob and Neiba, and we drove to one of the Indian Villages to meet there at church on Sabbath. In this village, all the native people are adventists, and they sing in all three languages: Spanish, English and their native tongue. Neiba and Bob flew in there many times.
In January 2004 I moved to the USA with my son and his wife. At that time I started working with GMI and the various projects around the world. Many times I had the opportunity to work with Neiba and Bob. When we met at meetings or conventions and shared about our mission work we always became closer. We had so many stories, wonderful testimonies of miracles and God’s leading to share with each other. Working for the Lord is the most joyful and exciting job to be involved in.
But speaking now about Neiba and Bob, we sure do miss them very much. Their commitment to the Lord and deep love for people is just amazing. They lived what they preached. Sharing with them has been a great privilege. Their kindness, selfless actions, their love for God and concern for others has been such a great testimony for many. For certain they will see many souls in heaven as a result of their hard work. The Holy Spirit has been able to work with the seeds they have planted and their work will keep baring fruit. I am glad to know, that we will be able to see them soon again. Jesus is coming soon. Maranatha!
With joy in my heart, for all these sweet and happy memories, and expecting a wonderful future when we all will be reunited, Michaela