Unearthing an Enduring Legacy

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 22 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.

A New Tool for Reaching Ecuador

Flights continue to take off and land at the base in Shell Mera, but today the program is run by Ecuadorian staff as Alas de Socorro. Many of the passengers on these flights are Waorani Christians who are serving as missionaries to their own people. They are concerned with passing on the faith to the next generation of Waorani.

Recently, thanks to generous donors, the program welcomed a brand new KODIAK airplane, which will help the team meet the physical and spiritual needs throughout the Amazon jungle well into the future.

The nine-passenger KODIAK is quite a contrast from the small, yellow Piper that Nate Saint flew. The “tools” may have changed, but they serve the same purpose … bringing the Gospel to hard-to-reach areas.

Share in the celebration of this new tool being used for Kingdom purposes in one of MAF’s oldest programs. Watch the slide show with pictures from the dedication ceremony as well as a few vintage shots.

  • boarding-pass_sept2015_007377-HQ-S-Personnel-NateSaint4
    Nate’s Piper Family Cruiser N5156H a.k.a. “56 Henry” on the shore at Palm Beach. The tree fort that the missionaries built and stayed in can be seen just beyond the plane. Circa Jan. 3–7, 1956.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_003673-HQ-P-Personnel-NateSaint4
    The damaged plane at Palm Beach. Photo by Cornell Capa of Life Magazine. Circa Jan. 12, 1956.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_003324a-HQ-P-Personnel-NateSaint6
    Bill Clapp examines a section of the recovered plane as Waorani women and children look on. Photo courtesy of MAF.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_026207-HQ-MAFHQComp2-G
    The remains of the plane on display at MAF Headquarters in Nampa. Photo by Paul O’Brien.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_Kodiak 2015 169
    A new era, and a new plane for the Ecuador program. Photo by Chad Irwin.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_DSC_0026
    The new KODIAK for Ecuador in front of two smaller Cessnas that have served for years. Photo by Barb Bowman.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_Kodiak 2015 77
    Waorani leaders who were flown out for the dedication. Photo by Chad Irwin.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_chad-irwin-waorani
    Chad Irwin poses with the Waorani in front of the new airplane. Photo by Andi Irwin.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_Kodiak 2015 125
    A local Pastor (right) prays for the current KODIAK pilots and mechanics, from left to right: Chad Irwin, Daniel Soria, Oscar Guererro (mechanic), Juan Guzman (avionics), David Aguilar (mechanic) and Mateo Chimbo (mechanic). Photo by Andi Irwin.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_Kodiak 2015 45
    The KODIAK is christened by the spray from a fire truck. Photo by Andi Irwin.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_Kodiak 2015 156
    Pilots Chad Irwin and Daniel Soria also get doused by the fire truck. Photo by Andi Irwin.
  • boarding-pass_sept2015_Kodiak 2015 161 (1)
    Two very wet but happy pilots. Photo by Andi Irwin.

Be sure and check back next week to learn more of Bill and Carole Clapp’s MAF story.


  • Steven R. Russell says:

    I feel like I know Nate Saint, as a Christian Private Pilot of 230 hours, who hasn’t flown a plane as pilot in command in some 34 or so years.

    My mother was very pregnant with me in Palmdale, California, as my now Retired Missionary Pilot to Panama father, the Rev. James F. Russell worked at Edwards AFB, California as an engineer, when the men were speared to death.

    The men were speared on January 8, 1956, and I was born the following March 31, 1956.

    So I have a particular interest in MAF and the work MAF does to bring the Gospel message to people around the world, as well as being a tool in the Master’s hand to aid in other needs as well.

  • Steven R. Russell says:

    Please notify me as indicated by the two check marks below.

  • Ferne Cooper says:

    Sept. 23, 2015

    How well I remember that day, in January of 1956. I was then expecting our first baby, (who is now 59 years old!)
    All of Christiandom felt the blow and thought it was nothing but a tragedy! But looking back, we realize God had a purpose in it all. What a God we serve! Praise His Name
    Ferne Cooper (96)

  • Jeanne Gray says:

    Looking forward to more info on Bill and Carole Clapp. We are part of MAF because of them.

  • Janet A. Stephens says:

    I too remember when those fine, brave young missionary men were martyred. I was almost 4 years old but I can remember my Dad’s quiet tears and praying for the families. I asked why he was crying and he said some Christian men had died because they wanted others to know about Jesus. He went on to explain what they knew at the time and what my 4 year old brain could understand.
    I look now at what those deaths have meant to so many including me. We don’t always understand God’s plan but we can trust His heart.

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