The sky was calm and clear over Quito (Kee-toe), Ecuador (Eck-wah-door), on December 30, 1948. Missionary supply pilot Nate Saint whistled as he loaded his plane and helped the young boy and his mother aboard. Within minutes after his perfect take-off, however, Nate knew they were in trouble. A strong gust of wind roared over the mountains and slammed into his plane, forcing it downward. Nate did his best to control the plane, but it plunged, crashing into the field below.
Nate slowly awakened to the bright light and white walls of an Ecuadoran hospital. His passengers were not seriously hurt, but Nate had a broken back and badly sprained ankle. He would spend the next month in the hospital and five months after that in a body cast.
Can you imagine wanting to fly again after that? The accident did not stop Nate. He could not wait to get back in his plane. He knew being a jungle pilot was dangerous: (fifty-one people died in jungle plane crashes within six months after his accident.) Even still, Nate was sure God had called him to do this work.
Sleeping on a Flat Roof
Nate Saint grew up near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a very curious child, much like his grandfather, who was a very successful inventor. As a result, Nate's mother felt it was important to let her children try out new ideas.
One day, Nate's older brothers asked their mother if they could sleep on the roof of their house. She agreed and had a carpenter build cots and a fence on the flat part of the roof. The Saints spent many nights sleeping under the open sky of their new rooftop bedroom.
Ten Year Old Pilot? Well, Almost...
Nate Saint was only seven years old in 1930, when his older brother, Sam, a pilot, took him on his first airplane ride. At ten, Sam even allowed Nate to help fly the plane on a short flight. And guess what? Nate decided that day that he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up, just like his big brother.
A Horrible Infection
When Nate was 14 years old, he became very ill. The doctor noticed a small, red cut on his leg from sledding the week before. The doctor said an infection had spread from the cut to the bone in Nate's leg. Because there was no cure for infections back then, the doctor prescribed plenty of rest and hoped Nate's body would be strong enough to fight off the infection. Otherwise, he could die.
Nate's leg ached so badly, he could not get out of bed for weeks. He spent a lot of time praying, reading his Bible and thinking of inventions. The infection eventually went away, but it would return later and change Nate's life.
Wings for Nate
After graduating from high school, Nate Saint joined the Army. The world was at war, and he hoped to become a fighter pilot. But just one day before he was to begin pilot's training, he began to feel sick. He noticed that the old scar on his leg had turned red. The infection had come back after five years. Can you believe that? Nate couldn't.
The army told Nate he was no longer fit to be a fighter pilot. He was very sad, but he didn't stay sad long. Instead, he used his time learning to fix airplanes. He would look for another way to learn to fly.
Serving God from the Sky
After leaving the armed forces, Nate got his commercial pilot's license, hoping to become an airline pilot like his brother Sam. However, one day a missionary called Nate and asked him to come to Mexico to fix a plane that had crashed in the jungle. Nate went, fixed the badly damaged plane and decided to become a missionary pilot instead.
As a missionary supply pilot, Nate spent a lot of time delivering food and medical supplies to missionary families. He also flew the missionaries to villages that would have taken them many days to walk to in the thick jungle. In addition, he invented several safety devices to help make jungle flights safer.
Nate often had to drop supplies out of the plane while he was flying over a village, because there was no place to land the plane. The goods would often get stuck in the treetops or end up broken on the ground. So Nate invented a way to lower supplies in a bucket attached to his plane by a rope. The bucket would hang completely still as Nate circled overhead, allowing the missionaries to remove their supplies.
Nate's Final Flight
One day while flying over the jungle, Nate noticed a village that he had not seen before. It belonged to a Stone Age Indian tribe known then as the Aucas (Ow-cuz), known now as the Waodani (Wah-oh-dah-nee). The Aucas had killed every outsider they'd found in their territory. Nate and four other missionaries began planning a way to tell the Aucas about Jesus.
For several months, Nate flew over the village, dropping gifts to the Aucas to show friendliness. After much prayer, he and the others decided to land on a beach near the Auca village. They built a tree house to sleep in until they could see if the Indians were friendly. The Aucas were not friendly, though. They attacked the missionaries, killing them all. U.S. Army officials later went to the beach, found the bodies of the five missionaries and quickly buried them. The Waodani have since become a friendly tribe. Many are now Christians.
Nate Saint may not have been fit to be a fighter pilot, but he was more than able to fly for God. Because of his death at the hands of the Auca Indians, many others have been inspired to give their lives to be used by God, too. His sister, Rachel Saint, lived with the Waodani for 40 years until she died in 1994. Nate's son, Steve Saint, became a pilot just like his dad. He and others continue the work among the Waodani today.
Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
- After the Aucas killed the first five missionaries, how do you think the other missionaries had enough courage to go and live among the Aucas?
- Have you ever done anything for God that you were scared to do?
- What inventions do you think have been the most useful for helping to spread the Gospel around the world? Why?
- Why do you think the Aucas were so ferocious at first and refused the offer of friendship extended to them by the missionaries?
- Suggested reading:
- Nate Saint: On a Wing and a Prayer by Janet & Geoff Benge (Christian Heroes Then and Now series, YWAM Pub.)
- The Fate of the Yellow Woodbee by Dave & Neta Jackson (Trailblazer Books, Bethany House)
- Jungle Pilot by Russell T. Hitt (Discovery House Pub.)