Flight of faith

Pilot Ron Johnson (left) of St. Mary and his son, Michael, clean the windshield on his borrowed helicopter Sunday in Perryville before transporting members of his church back to Chester. Johnson, who was assisted by his son made five round trips in the four-seat helicopter in an effort to help fellow churchgoers attend services after the Chester Bridge was closed.

“We knew the bridge was going to close and we have several people that live in Chester and go to church here,” said pilot Ron Johnson. “We wan…

The closing of the Chester Bridge is causing problems for those who live and work on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, along with their employers, but it also has a few less obvious consequences.

For members of one Perryville church, it meant some might not be able to make it to church, or if they did, a four-hour round trip.

St. Mary resident Ron Johnson, a member of Overcomers Church International of Perryville, saw it as an opportunity to lend a hand.

 “We knew the bridge was going to close and we have several people that live in Chester and go to church here,” Johnson said. “We wanted to try and do something to provide them a way to church if they still chose to come.”

The Chester Bridge is the only Mississippi River crossing between the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in St. Louis, more than an hour away, and the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau, nearly 40 miles to the south.

Making things worse, flooding in Illinois resulted in the closure of part of Hwy. 3 north of Jackson County, Ill., nearly two weeks ago, cutting off the most direct route to Cape Girardeau from the Illinois side.

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That left Johnson, a licensed helicopter pilot, pondering an unusual question. If church members can’t drive to church, why not fly them?

“I had the opportunity to be able to rent a helicopter and I’d made arrangements to rent one for the day,” Johnson said. “I have a friend that owns one, Kim Rasnick from Steeleville, Ill., and I was talking to him. He said, ‘Just come get my helicopter and fly them with it.’ ”

Rasnick’s helicopter, a four-seat Robinson R44 Ranger II, was small enough to land in the parking lot near Rozier’s Country Market in Chester and at the Perry Plaza in Perryville, where Overcomers Church is located.

All told, Johnson made five round trips transporting 14 fellow church members.

 “It was just something I wanted to do to be able to not cut the people off and give them the opportunity to come worship with the church body as a whole,” Johnson said.

Plus, it was fun.

Chester resident Tony Glaser, who took advantage of the impromptu airlift along with his wife, Shannon, called it a “once in a lifetime experience.”

The weather forecast, which calls for a 70 percent chance of rain Sunday, will likely preclude a repeat performance.

“The weather doesn’t seem to be good for the whole weekend,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who said he caught the flying bug years ago, was assisted by his sons, Michael, 17, and Jonathan, 16, who served as his ground crew.

“About six or seven years ago, my wife and kids bought me a one-hour introductory flight for helicopters,” said Johnson, who works as a concrete contractor. “I went and did that one-hour flight and got hooked. I went to Cape Copters in Cape Girardeau and did lessons down there and was able to complete my license.”

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