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A final flight up to heaven

Larry and Doreen Mansfield gathered photographs and other memorabilia from their daughter's life as Saturday's memorial service at First Baptist Church in New Richmond approached. Katrina (Mansfield) Erickson and her husband, Jay, were killed in Zambia, Africa while doing Christian missionary work in that country.

Larry Mansfield's cell phone rang while he and his wife, Doreen, were at the New Richmond Heritage Center barn June 2. It was a call that no parent ever wants to receive.

"Oh my, that is bad news," Larry responded to the caller. Doreen was curious about who was calling. A short time later Larry shared the news that their daughter, Katrina Erickson, 26, and her husband, Jay Erickson, had perished in an airplane crash in Zambia, Africa just hours before.

"You did not just say that to me," Doreen recalled saying. "I started to sob."

The grief, though profound, had to be tempered a bit. The Ericksons had left two young daughters (Marina, 2, and Coral, 1) behind in Zambia. The Somerset couple, along with Jay's parents had to make arrangements to retrieve the newly orphaned children.

Within days, the Mansfields met up with Barbara Erickson in Zambia to gather their grandchildren. The young sisters will live in Spokane, Wash. with Jay's sister and her family.

Early years

The Mansfields moved to New Richmond in 1980, prior to building a home in rural Somerset in 1987. The family was involved with First Baptist Church in New Richmond for many years.

They raised three daughters (Odessa, Katrina and April). Doreen homeschooled all of the girls.

As the young Mansfields grew, their Christian faith also strengthened, according to Doreen. April participated in three short-term missions trips, and Katrina signed up for two.

In 2005, Katrina and April moved out to Spokane, Wash. together to begin training at Moody Aviation, a branch of Moody Bible Institute. April was training to become a missionary bush pilot. Katrina focused her studies on business.

The sisters both met their eventual husbands at Moody Aviation. Jay and Katrina's first temporary assignment was in Haiti, where the couple learned the basics of how missions groups operate within various countries. Their first permanent assignment came after they learned that a hospital in Zambia needed a pilot to fly patients, doctors, nurses and supplies to and from the 150-bed Chitokoloki Mission Hospital. The hospital had just recently secured its first airplane and was looking for a pilot.

After visiting Zambia for two weeks, the Ericksons were convinced they were being called to the position.

"Jay and Katrina felt that is where God wanted them," Doreen recalled. "Everything just came together and they made a one-year commitment."

They arrived at their assignment in February of this year.

"Katrina was the most at peace than we had seen her in years," Larry said.

The accident

Things were going marvelously in Zambia for the Ericksons, according to Doreen. The couple was leaning toward extending their one-year commitment to Chitokoloki.

The Ericksons and their two daughters lived on the hospital complex.

Katrina spent most of her time raising her daughters, but she also helped with whatever tasks needed to be done at the mission station. "She wasn't one to sit on her hands," Doreen said proudly. "She wanted to do whatever she could to help."

Whenever Jay would return from a flight, Katrina and the girls could always hear him arriving. They would run to meet Jay at the dirt airstrip, Doreen recalled.

Katrina had yet to leave the mission base in early June when Jay was given permission to take his wife on a brief flight to drop off a nurse at a nearby hospital. There was room for Katrina to ride along and the couple jumped at the chance.

"They were just beaming," Doreen said of the reports from Zambia.

After dropping off the nurse, they settled in to return to Chitokoloki, with Jay stating he was going to "spend a few romantic moments with his wife."

Reports suggest that the Ericksons followed the Zambezi River back toward home. Officials noted that they were likely sightseeing as they traveled back.

"They were flying lower than what would normally be the case," Doreen said.

A new powerline had just recently been installed across the river and was not yet indicated on flight maps. Larry said the couple likely didn't see the wire that led to their deaths.

"Jay was not a careless person. He was not a daredevil at all, he just didn't know the line was there," Doreen said. "Flying at 80 to 130 mph, it's highly likely that they died on impact."

It took several hours for the airplane and the bodies to be recovered from the river. The Zambian military had to be brought in to search the crocodile-infested waters.

Outpouring of love

Two national days of mourning were declared in Zambia following the Ercikson's untimely deaths. The flag at the U.S. Embassy also flew at half-mast on those days.

A funeral for the Ericksons was conducted in Zambia prior to the Mansfields' arrival in the country. About 3,000 people from across the country attended.

"People would have had to travel quite a distance to get there," Doreen said.

Katrina and Jay Erickson were buried at the Chitokoloki Mission Hospital, which was their wish.

The government of Zambia picked up the cost of the Ericksons' funeral.

Condolences have streamed in to the family since the news of the tragedy spread. Doreen said it's amazing how their daughter's death has impacted so many people.

"These are two obscure people who died in a remote location," Doreen said. "But the whole world seems to know all about it."

'Good News'

Even in tragedy, Doreen said, the Mansfields have found hope.

"We realized this could happen," Doreen said. "We certainly didn't expect it though."

Still, Larry and Doreen said they are proud of their daughter and her husband for the work they accomplished in Zambia and for their commitment to God's calling.

"It's not so much the number of days in one's life, it's how you live those days," Larry said. "We just hope their story helps to further the Gospel."

Doreen said both of her parents are dead and at the time she thought that was the worst pain she'd experience. She was wrong - losing a child was worse.

"This is the most pain I've ever felt," she admitted. "But at the same time, I've never been so acutely aware of God's goodness. There are a lot of painful things in life, and I'd rather go through them relying of God rather than going through it without him."

Doreen said she challenges others to understand what Jay and Katrina understood, that accepting Jesus as your savior guarantees a spot in heaven for eternity.

"We grieve, but not without hope," she said, "because we know we will see them again in heaven someday."

The Mansfields' daughter April and her husband, Jake, are awaiting their own bush pilot assignment. Larry said the recent death of their daughter won't stop them from supporting April in her commitment to the mission field.

"We're going to continue to encourage them to serve God in whatever capacity He leads," he said.

Memorial

On Saturday, First Baptist Church in New Richmond hosted to a "service in celebration of the lives of Jay and Katrina." Bible Baptist Church in Hudson, where the Mansfields currently attend, was also involved in the service. The sanctuary was nearly full of family, friends and well-wishers.

Larry Mansfield told the crowd that his daughter and son-in-law had few possessions, but they loved Jesus and enjoyed playing a part in spreading the Gospel.

"Katrina and Jay lived their lives well," Larry said as he fought back tears. "And on June 2, 2012 they took their final flight together - they flew to heaven."

A special fund has been established to aid the Erickson children. People wishing to help can send donations to Jay and Katrina Erickson Memorial Fund, c/o Stewart Title, 606 W. Third Ave., Spokane, WA 99201.

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