Nearly 60 years ago, MAF pilot Nate Saint and four other missionaries landed at “Palm Beach” on the Curaray River in Ecuador. Setting foot on the river beach was the next logical step in what the men called “Operation Auca,” after initial attempts from the air to contact the hostile Waorani tribe were deemed positive. They desperately wanted to take the Gospel message to the unreached Waorani.
Tragically, only a few days after landing on the beach, on January 8, 1956, all five were killed by members of the tribe.
Nate’s small yellow Piper PA-Family Cruiser had been so badly damaged by the Waorani that it wasn’t able to be flown. Heavy rains around the time of the funerals washed it downstream; the rise and fall of the river and changing currents soon buried it in the sand.
A Changing Tide
MAF pilot Bill Clapp was in the hangar in Shell Mera, Ecuador one morning in 1993 when he noticed a piece of aluminum tacked to a beam that hadn’t been there before. When he asked about it, one of the guys said one of the Waorani had found it.
“Well, that’s off of Nate’s airplane!” Bill replied. Bill had rebuilt Piper airplanes and recognized the piece as being from a Piper-PA-14 Family Cruiser.
That small piece set in motion a search for the rest of plane.
Bill helped organize a search party with Rachel Saint and some of the Waorani men. They were to call him on the radio if they found any pieces of the plane.
It wasn’t long before Bill got a call saying they’d found something. They wanted to know what they should do with it.
“Put it in the church,” said Bill.
“No,” they said, “it’s too big.”
Turns out they had discovered the front nine feet of the fuselage and the landing gear.
“It’s as if God buried it for 38 years and then one kid sees this thing sticking up in the sand, and it was the control stick,” said Bill. “With the exception of the center section of the fuselage, it all showed up in about a month.”
And today it sits in the front lobby display at MAF headquarters in Idaho. Photo cutouts of Bill and Steve Saint—Nate’s son—are perched in sand as they examine the metal pieces that made up the tail sections, just as they did on the beach in Ecuador almost 30 years ago.
This display is a reminder not only of the sacrifice five sold-out missionaries paid to reach the Waorani, but also of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ that transformed the tribe.
The remains of the plane on display at MAF Headquarters in Nampa. Photo by Paul O’Brien.