CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — With the 50th anniversary of the National Association of Priest Pilots just around the corner, Father Mel Hemann of Cedar Falls and Father Phil Schmitt of Mt. Vernon, two charter  members, reflected on the unique role they and other Iowans have played in the history of "aviation evangelization."

"It came to be a great fraternity," said Father Hemann, a retired Dubuque archdiocesan priest, who still serves as a flight instructor.

About 100 priest pilots are NAPP members, including two bishops, plus about 30 lay associate members in the United States. In addition, there are two member priests in Rome and people affiliated with the organization in other countries, such as Flying Medical Service in Tanzania, an organization whose pilots transport medical personnel to remote African villages.

"Iowa has more (NAPP) members than any other state," 10 in all, said Father Hemann. "One of the reasons is I taught most of them to fly."

"Some people still believe you're crazy for being a flyer, but we thought, 'There are flying farmers, flying doctors and flying nuns, why not flying priests?'" said Father Schmitt, who plans to fly to this year's golden anniversary convention July 8-9 in Covington, Kentucky.

Father Schmitt learned to fly from Father Hemann.

"The day I took the ground test (written exam) was the day the first space flight took off," Father Schmitt told the Witness, Dubuque's archdiocesan newspaper.

Since NAPP's founding, he has been to every annual convention in 50 years, except one.

In 2013, NAPP held its gathering in Rapid City, a diocese where the bishop is a pilot, and had a group picture in front of the "Crazy Horse" memorial, which is carved into a hill there.

"We've seen a lot of parts of the country," Father Schmitt said.

"We've been to a lot of places and met a lot of people we wouldn't have if we didn't fly," added Father Hemann.

At 85, Father Hemann is as dedicated as ever to teaching people to fly, clocking about 50 hours in the air in recent weeks alone. A former NAPP president and 2011 recipient of the Federal Aviation Administration's Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, he shares a special bond with the other priest pilots around the world.

Fathers Henry Haacke and Bob Wendeln of Kentucky started NAPP in 1964 with about 90 priest pilot members. They held a charter meeting in Carrollton, Kentucky. Four priests from the Dubuque Archdiocese were founding members including Father Schmitt, Father Hemann and his brother, John, who is also a priest.

For the priests, NAPP is about more than just getting together to pursue a hobby.

"It's for entertainment, but it's also a practical thing," Father Schmitt said.

The organization is designed to "promote the use of private aircraft as a practical, safe and efficient tool of the apostolic work of the church, to cooperate with other aviation and ecclesiastical groups wherever  possible in order to promote aviation in the cause of the church," among other aims, including missionary support, according to the NAPP constitution.

The role of planes is very important to priests in places with hard-to-reach populations such as the South Pacific Islands and Alaska.

"There was a time when just about every priest in Alaska was a pilot," Father Hemann said.

Planes also have been beneficial to priests on the U.S. mainland, in far-flung dioceses such as those in South Dakota and even in Iowa. Father Hemann has transported three Dubuque bishops by plane on numerous occasions.

NAPP typically gives money and other aid to charities and missions. Members are currently raising funds to help replace an aircraft for Flying Medical Service. NAPP membership strengthens bonds among members and furthers their spiritual ministry.

"Flying planes was once seen as a rich man's hobby," Father Hemann said. "For us, it's a way to spread the word (of God)."