The Pastor Ernst (Ernie) Tanner was born on May 12, 1927 in Winterthur/ZH. His father worked in the large insurance company Winterthur and expected his youngest son to join him there, but Ernst had other ideas. He wanted to leave home and head for the French part of Switzerland. Consequently he looked for a job in Winterthur during the summer holiday to earn money. He got a job offer in a hotel in La Chaux-de-Fonds as garcon d’office. He thought this was an office job, not realizing that it meant being a dish washer! He proudly presented the contract to his father for his signature as he was yet under age. His father replied: “I guarantee that you will be glad to return home after three days”. Had his father not made that remark he most likely would have returned. But not Ernst. He fought his disappointment and started an apprenticeship as a waiter in that hotel. He then advanced to work in the top Hotels of Switzerland, such as “Baur au lac” in Zurich, “Belvedere” in Davos, “Le Montreux Place” in Montreux and the “Schweizerhof” in Berne. His hobby was drawing. In Bern he decided to become an artist and first started training at the “Kunstgewerbe Schule” (school of art). After the World War II he studied fine art in Amsterdam. In 1948 he emigrated to the United States after crossing the Atlantic 27 times as a steward on a ship. Art studies followed in Philadelphia and in the Art Colony of Woodstock, NY.
Gradually he realized that fine art would not really satisfy his hunger for life. For this reason he decided to start an apprenticeship as a tool and dye maker in a factory. In his search for the meaning of life he landed in a church service at Philadelphia. The love of God touched his heart. Physically he felt the relief of forgiveness that resulted in an overflowing joy he had never experienced before. He could not remember having seen happy Christians back home in Switzerland and decided to study theology in order to bring this news back home. In 1955 he was ordained as a Minister (Pastor) and returned to Switzerland. In that period he met his wife Hedi, a schoolteacher, who helped him in youth camps. They married in 1957. At that time Ernst was pastoring 5 churches in Southern Germany. Mission work was a high priority in his life and in 1967 he did his first visit to Africa. Being stirred by the vast areas without any medical and spiritual help he walked the jungles for the following 2 years during dry seasons. Back home he heard of the usefulness of helicopters in the war in Vietnam and decided to use a helicopter to speed his mission work.
For the first time in life he watched a helicopter hoover at Heliswiss in Belp/BE and bought a ticket for a 10 minutes flight. He asked pilot Heidi Bühler, the only helicopter female pilot in Switzerland at that time, to fly low over fields and forests, and make a landing.
That flight convinced him that this was the key to speed mission work. Consequently Ernst decided at first to obtain the license as airplane pilot in Altenrhein/SG, and then during the Spring of 1971 he started in Belp/BE the school to obtain the license as a helicopter pilot. He was trained by Walter Demuth, who was at that time the chief-pilot of Heliswiss, on the (Agusta-)Bell 47G-3B-1.
On October 5, 1971 Ernst received the private pilot licence n° 123.
Contemporary in the United States he purchased a Bell 47J Ranger which was imported in Switzerland where it received the registration HB-XDK. The Bell 47 had been paid for with a mortgage on his house. That aircraft became the first helicopter of the newly founded Helimission.
Helimission’s aim is to bring social, medical and spiritual help to people in remote and inaccessible areas. Helimission is non-denominational and helps those in need without consideration of their religious affiliation. With its helicopters it supports local organizations and missionary societies. Further activities include: the transport of medical personnel, equipment and building materials for jungle hospitals in remote areas, emergency medical evacuations, and survey flights.
In January 1972, with only 37 hours solo flight experience under his belt, he started his first trip to Cameroon (Africa), not realizing that he was probably one of the first pilots to cross the Sahara desert by helicopter. With a range of 270 km and distances of 700-800 km between airports, he was faced with many difficulties. However he was able to visit many remote villages and was convinced he was on the right track.
In the heat of the African climate the already limited performances of the Bell 47J Ranger appeared even more evidently. That is why Ernst took another step of faith and bought an used Agusta-Bell 206A Jet Ranger (HB-XCX) which was paid within a year. This aircraft was then equipped with a long range tank for ferry flights.
Since then Ernst has crossed deserts 26 times, and logged a considerable experience. During his flying career he flew with several helicopters. Among the ones already mentioned there are the MBB BO-105, the AS 350 Squirrel, the Bell 206L-3 Long Ranger, and the Bell 412. Under his belt he logged altogether 2'459 hours of flight and obtained the extension for mountain landings and night flights. He did his last flight as PIC in 2002.
Since its foundation Helimission has flown missions for the price of the fuel. All medevacs and most disaster relief are for free. It assists many other organizations such as the Red Cross, UNHCR, Humedica, Doctors Without Borders, Tear Fund, US Aid and many others. The fleet is actually composed by 9 helicopters. Ernst’s son Simon is now the head of Helimission. Ernst is travelling around with their documentary movie in Switzerland and Germany, this at the age of 83.
In the summer of 2000, he was awarded the title of honorary doctorate from the theological faculty of the International University of Kathmandu (Nepal) in recognition of 45 years of outstanding service to unreached people groups. One of his motives is: “All things are possible to him who believes - Mark 9, 23".
More information about Helimission may be found at the following address: www.helimission.ch