I Wondered if I Would Ever See That Plane Again.
Beyond the Gates links
—About this Film pdf
by Steve Saint
In the making of “Beyond the Gates,” an incredible docudrama about the death of five missionaries at the hands of ‘savage’ Amazon jungle people, a little airplane plays a major role. The wife of the pilot calls it “the modern missionary mule” as she describes how that little airplane revolutionized the effort of taking physical and spiritual comfort to people deep in the jungle. That sweet ‘wife’ is my mother and the pilot, Nate Saint, who was killed when I was just a boy was my hero and my Dad.
The docudrama, however, is just a companion piece to a full-fledged feature film intended for release in theaters. As detailed plans were being made for the feature film, it became clear that a replica plane would need to be re-created to play the role of N5156H or ‘56 Henry’. That is how my Dad’s plane was affectionately known by the people who flew in it to their homes in the jungle, or to the hospital for lifesaving attention that was unavailable within the jungle. To those people and thousands of Indians living in what was often referred to as “the Green Hell”, that little Piper Family Cruiser was much more than a machine. It was a friend. 56 Henry and it’s sandy haired pilot in his grease stained khakis were a popular duo in the Ecuadorian jungles beyond the reach of roads, medicine, and news from the outside world.
When Dad and his friends, Roger Youderian, Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully were speared to death on the little beach where they had just made the first friendly contact with the dreaded people known as ‘Aucas’, 56 Henry was killed too. His wings and fabric were hacked with the very same machetes that the five young missionaries had dropped to the people as tokens of friendship.
Finding an exact replica was a tough but exciting order to fill. And I was asked to fill it.
The Piper aircraft company only built 237 of their model PA-14, known as the Family Cruiser. Proud PA-14 owners extolled the virtues of the Family Cruiser, and they would not sell. Finally, through a Northwest Airlines mechanic, who knew a small town pastor who knew an old friend of a proud owner who had died and left his PA-14 orphaned, I found one for sale in Northern Minnesota.
I met N4225H in a little hanger on the edge of the Great North Woods, which shares only the size of its trees with the Amazon rain forest. The air temperature was just above zero and both of our blood was thick and sluggish. All I knew for sure on our first date, that cold night at the end of 2002, was that 25H had no operable radios and we were a long adventure from her new home at the Indigenous Peoples’ Technology and Education Center in central Florida. A borrowed road atlas would serve to tell us where we were, an inexpensive fishing GPS would tell us where to go, and our eyes would provide our only weather forecast.
I made a list of what it would take to transform 4225H into 56 Henry. It would need major renovation, a new engine, instruments, modern radios, navigation equipment, and clothes. It was painted in its original white with red trim. But 56 Henry had been painted a bright ‘Cub’ yellow to make it show up better in case of a forced landing in the endless green of the Amazon jungle. We had our work cut out for us.
Then it dawned on me. “What good would it do to spend months of time and tens of thousands of dollars to convert 25H into 56 Henry with the wrong registration number emblazoned on both of its wings and its tail?” Registration numbers on airplanes are not like license numbers on a car. On the contrary, they are very personal and unique. In an airplane, the pilot identifies himself by his plane’s registration number in every radio transmission. “Chicago Center, 5156Hotel, request”. “56Hotel, Chicago Center, say request.”
I called the FAA to learn what had become of 56 Henry’s ‘N number’. A nice lady explained what I already knew, “The original plane that carried that ‘N number’ was destroyed in South America in 1956.” … “Now N5156H belongs to a flying club owner in Salem, Oregon.”
There was no way that a stranger in Salem, Oregon, much less an entire flying club, was going to give me back my Dad’s registration number 46 years after the fact. And besides, the FAA would have to approve it.
I lay awake at night imagining what opening line I would use. But I simply could not think of a good way to ask Joan for her personal ‘N number’. Finally, I just called. After a couple days of phone tag, in which I was the only one calling, a receptionist put me through. “Hi, Joan?” “This is Steve Saint calling from Florida. … You don’t know me....”
That is as far as I got. The voice on the other end cut in, “Are you Nate Saint’s son?” (No way! Out of 300 million people in the country, I call a total stranger on the opposite end of the country and she knows who I am.)
When I acknowledged that I was Nate Saint’s son, Joan took over the conversation. “When my sister and I were little girls our parents wanted to be missionaries. It never worked out, but every year it seemed, almost like a family tradition, they would read us a book titled Through Gates of Splendor.”
“Well, I got interested in missionary aviation and learned to fly. I joined a flying club and now I’m the president and my husband and I own it. About ten days ago, a new member joined and I asked him if he would like to read the book. He started to look at the pictures and blurted out, ‘Hey, the airplane in this book has our ‘N number’!’”
“Can you believe it?” Joan queried. “I have read that book since I was a little girl and never realized that we had your Dad’s ‘N number’!” (YES!!! YES, YES, oh YEEEESSSS!!!) The conversation was definitely moving in the right direction. Now I had my opening, but Joan was not finished with her story.
“I called my sister.” “Guess what?” I asked her, “Remember that missionary story Mom and Dad used to read us? Well, you won’t believe this but I just found out that one of our club planes has Nate Saint’s registration number on it.”
Her sister responded, “You think that is a coincidence, wait ‘til I tell you what just happened to me! Last night I went to a Steven Curtis Chapman concert and met Nate’s son Steve and Mincaye, one of the men that killed Nate.” Joan explained to me that she thought her sister was mistaken. How could she have met me? And surely she couldn’t have met a member of the tribe. Why would an Amazon warrior be here in the U.S. and why would he and I have been at a concert in Washington State?
Joan and her sister were stunned. (Talk about stunned, I was speechless and amazed.) “Then it occurred to me that maybe you were a pilot, so I asked my sister. ‘Do you have any idea if Nate’s son is a pilot too?’”
“Oh sure, in the middle of the concert, they played a video as Steven Curtis sang about this story. It showed Steve Saint flying and living with the same people that killed his dad.”
“That is when it occurred to me,” Joan told me, “that you probably want your Dad’s ‘N number’. So, my sister and I have been trying to figure out how to get your address and now you’ve called. I imagine that is why you’ve called too, isn’t it?” …. Joan told me that she would give me the ‘N number’, and I sent her some video footage of 56 Henry in an old film titled “Through Gates of Splendor.”
After a great deal of building at I-TEC, I took 4225H to Ohio to be painted by Missionary Maintenance Service (MMS). Several weeks later, my wife, Ginny, and I flew to Ohio to pick it up. At the hangar, they opened the doors and, ‘TADAA!’ there in front of me was not the PA-14 that I had left with them, but ’56 Henry’ itself. I had not seen that old friend since the dramatic day in January of 1956, when I watched my hero fly away for the last time.
On our way back to Florida, Ginny and I decided to stop at the little airport near where my Mom lives. I called her on my cell phone. Ginny reminded me, “Remember what Mom said in the ‘Documentary’, ‘One thought entered my mind as I watched him (Nate) leaving, I wonder if I’ll ever see that little airplane ...again – and I never did.’”
As Ginny and I taxied up to the fence where Mom was standing, I watched her face. She was concentrating all of her attention, trying to see Ginny and me. But, suddenly I saw her expression change. Her focus changed from Ginny and me to the little yellow airplane that we were in – and she did see 56 Henry again.
God really does write great stories, doesn’t He?