When Christians accept the call to enter the overseas mission field, they accept any number of risks, including potential persecution from foreign governments and even personal harm or death.
For Peter Lessmann, one of those risks nearly became very real on Monday afternoon.
Peter, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Indianola, was one of three people, including the pilot, who survived a plane crash in Union County, North Carolina on Monday afternoon.
Peter, 18, and his 16-year-old brother Richard were there training with a mission organization called JAARS when the crash happened.
They are the sons of Indianola physician Dr. Erik Lessmann and Rebecca Lessmann, who have 10 children, ranging from 5 to 22 years old.
Richard was not on board the plane when it crashed.
Emergency medical responders were dispatched to the crash site just before 2 p.m. that day, according to a release from the Union County Sheriff’s Department, “And determined that a single engine plane had nosedived in the back yard of a residence” there.
According to the JAARS website, “From pilot training and mission aviation services to remote technology and communications support, we provide off-the-grid logistical solutions that help make Bible translation possible.”
The camp, Rebecca said, is designed to spur teenagers’ interest in mission work, and not only the mechanics of flying, but how they can help missionaries in remote areas.
The boys were signed up to go last year, but it was canceled due to COVID-19.
Rebecca said there are about 10 boys at the camp this week, and cellphones were supposed to be off limits during the week of flight training.
When she saw Peter’s number come up on her phone, she knew something was not right.
“He called me and said, ‘Mom, don’t panic. I think I’m okay,’ and he said, ‘I was in a plane crash,’” she said. “I thought he was kidding me, because the whole previous week, I told the boys, ‘You can go to this camp and learn all you want about flying on the ground, but you can’t go up in an airplane.’ I was just joking, of course.”
This was no joke.
The recent high school graduate described to his mother having a headache, but overall he seemed to be okay. Peter and the other passenger were apparently taken by ambulance to a Charlotte, N.C. hospital where they were treated for minor injuries and later released.
The pilot also survived with no major injuries.
During the call with his mother, Peter described what happened in the moments leading up to the crash.
“He said they were going up,” she said. “He said they were over the tree line and were ascending, and he heard the pilot say, ‘uh oh.’ The last thing he said was that it was so fast. He described flipping over into the trees.”
“Preliminary indications are that the plane experienced mechanical problems shortly after taking off from JAARS,” the Sheriff’s department said in its Monday release. “The (Federal Aviation Administration) will be conducting further investigation into the crash.”
Rebecca said she was relieved that he was conscious and talking.
“When I heard his voice, and he was talking to me, I knew that he was going to be okay,” she said.
Shortly after she hung up the phone with Peter, the JAARS organization contacted her.
“As soon as I hung up the phone with him, JAARS did call me,” she said. “I think if I had heard from them first, it would have been a lot worse.”
All flights at the camp are grounded for the rest of the week, Rebecca said, but the boys have decided to stay for ground-based training until Saturday, and then they will drive back to Mississippi.
Rebecca said she had a sick feeling in her stomach on Monday afternoon and evening, but she felt better on Tuesday, and she feels certain that the Lord was working during those terrifying few seconds the plane was descending into that wooded area.
“God definitely, he did a miracle,” she said. “We talked about it in the past, the day before they left, how it’s very rare for a plane to crash, but if it does, you’re not going to survive a plane crash, as opposed to car crashes which are much more common. I was more worried about the boys driving. They drove 10 hours up there, and they drove through Atlanta. They had never driven through Atlanta. I was much more worried about that.”
In three weeks, Rebecca said Peter is set to board a jet for the Dominican Republic, where he plans to do mission work for the next year.
A year in a foreign country is something that would have been an adventure unto itself for most 18-year-old men, but he probably saw more excitement Monday afternoon than most missionaries typically see in a year.
“He’ll have a story to tell,” his mother said.