In the 1950s, Nate Saint, adventure pilot and Protestant missionary, barnstormed the Amazon. Now, his son plans to transform jungle aviation and save lives – with help from a flying car and a prayer.
“Gather around eryone,” Steve Saint says. “Let’s say a prayer about these flights.” Saint, a thin, greybearded 58-year-old, is wearing khakis and a salmon-coloured shirt and holding a red crash helmet with a radio headset. He is standing with a dozen employees and well-wishers in front of a candy-apple-red vehicle parked beside a crumbling strip of tarmac at a sleepy little airstrip near Dunnellon, Florida, 140 km northwest of Orlando. The contraption looks like a Sandmaster dune buggy, but one with a propeller in the back like an Everglades airboat and, billowing above, a rainbow-coloured fl ex wing – essentially a double-canopy parachute – held aloft on a mast.
“Jay, how about you?” Saint says, peering through wirerimmed glasses. “You built this thing. You know what can go wrong.” Jay Dyck, the project’s chief designer, steps forward, closes his eyes and drops his chin. “Father and God,” he booms, warming to his task, “we have tried to do our best.” A prop plane buzzes into the blue Florida sky behind him. “Father, we leave it to you. Help Steve stay alert and be safe.” His entreaty done, Dyck scrutinises the driveshaft and chute lines one last time. “You can design something on paper, but it’s just a thing until you get it in the air,” he tells me, his animated face growing sober. “If something goes wrong up there, you can’t park it. You’re gonna come down.”
Saint climbs into the driver’s seat. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the craft for testing a couple of days earlier, and this will be its fi rst official flight, though the team briefly flew earlier versions. Stretching across the aluminium dash in front of him is EXPERIMENTAL in bold black stick-on letters.
Steve Saint is a missionary – and yes, that’s his real name. He’s also a pilot, a former real estate developer and the one-time owner of a lime rock mine near Ocala in Florida. He grew up in Ecuador, where his family moved in the 1950s as Protestant missionaries to work with indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.
At fi rst, they focused on Quechua Indians. But it was another group, the Huaorani, then referred to by outsiders as “Aucas” or “savages”, to which the Saint family would become linked by tragedy. Half a century ago, the story was a subject of articles and sermons, and Saint recently wrote a book and helped make two films about it.
Today Saint is working to fulfill a long-standing promise he made to the Huaorani: helping them find a better way to travel in a land where villages can be a month’s walk from medical help. The bush plane is considered the modern missionary’s pack mule, but Saint’s group, the Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Centre (I-TEC), is trying to build a more versatile vehicle. I’ve come to see I-TEC’s progress with the hybrid aircraft they call the Maverick. Saint says the vehicle will hit highway speeds on tar, burn up tracks like an all-terrain vehicle and, when the road ends, take to the air. The finished craft should have the carrying capacity of a Cessna 172 – fuel plus 250 kg – without the plane’s expense and need for an airstrip. And non-pilots will be able to fly it. In Huaorani territory right now, Saint says, “If you get sick and don’t have an airstrip, you’re dead.”
It’s time for the flight. “Clear!” Saint yells, and the 95 kW Maverick roars to life, its five-bladed carbon-fibre prop blasting sand and grass in its wake. The buggy chugs across the weedy runway as the ram-air cells in the canopy fill. The idea that a colourful curl of ripstop nylon attached by spaghetti straps can lift a 500 kg off-road vehicle seems almost absurd. But soon the front wheels are leaving the ground, and the gleaming frame is climbing – 30, 60, 100 metres – into the white glare of the sky.
Steve Saint was 5 years old when his father, Nate Saint, a man of restless energy and a big-toothed smile, launched a secret plan that he and four missionary buddies earnestly dubbed Operation Auca. Saint was flying for the Mission Aviation Fellowship in the eastern lowlands of Ecuador. In 1955, using a trick called the bucket drop that he had dreamed up as a young pilot back at Wheaton College in Illinois, Saint began lowering gifts to a Huaorani village from the cockpit of his yellow Piper Cruiser. A partner would spool out 400 metres of cord with a canvas bucket filled with axe heads, colourful buttons, machetes and more. Then Saint would cut tight circles in the air until the line formed an inverted cone with the bucket hanging at its point – motionless – just above the ground. One day, the Huaorani filled the bucket with their own presents – a toucan headdress, smoked woolly monkey meat and a live parrot that Nate gave to Steve as a pet. The time had come: If the five evangelists were ever going to bring Jesus to the Aucas, they would have to meet them face-to-face.
On January 3, 1956, Nate pointed the nose of his plane toward a narrow gap in the jungle canopy cut by the path of the muddy Curaray River. He aimed for a sliver of beach along the river’s south bank, hoping that his wheels wouldn’t sink in soft sand, or, worse, flip his plane. The wheels bit into the sandbar and rolled 200 metres, stopping a pebble’s toss from the water’s edge. Over the next few hours, the group ferried in food, two-way radios, materials for building a treehouse shelter, and gifts seemingly suited for a child’s Christmas stocking, including a harmonica, a yo-yo and a View-Master with picture reels.
Back in Shell Mera, a former oil settlement with a gravel airstrip, Steve waited for Nate’s plane to reappear over Penny Ridge, as it did every afternoon. Why isn’t daddy coming home? the boy wondered. That evening, the missionaries radioed Nate’s wife, Marj, to say that they had landed safely and made camp. After several days, a young man and two women, naked except for strings around their waists, stepped out onto the sand. The excited Americans tried out the few Huao words they knew and gave the curious trio lemonade and peanut butter sandwiches. Nate took the man, Nenkiwi, up in his plane, buzzing the village as Nenkiwi yelled down to his clansmen below.
Three days later, Nate flew over the village and saw a group of about 10 Huaorani moving swiftly along a trail leading toward the beach. He radioed Marj excitedly: “Looks like they’ll be here for the early afternoon service. Pray for us.” Nate promised to radio again at 4:30 pm.
The call never came. A search party found the plane five days later looking like a skeletal bird, its fabric cover shredded.They found the bodies of the missionaries in the river and buried them by the water’s edge. The men had been speared to death.
I really wish i’d buckled in. I’m sliding all over the back seat of the Maverick while I-TEC administrator Troy Townsend whips the buggy left, then right, at 80 km/h, wheels kicking up sand, to demonstrate the vehicle’s agility. Thin, with a preternatural calm, the 42-year-old Townsend is Saint’s fellow test pilot – as staid “as a CPA”, jokes Saint, “until you get him in something with a motor”. Townsend fractured a heel last year trying mast designs on a powered parachute, then emergency-landed the fl ying buggy when the drive belt snapped during a short test flight. “We’ll keep breaking the Maverick,” he says, after we’ve parked the vehicle and I’ve scraped the gnats off my teeth. “We’ll find the weak spots, and then we’ll fix them.”
In the hanger that I-TEC calls home, Townsend and Dyck, an old friend of Saint’s and a self-taught engineer, pop an aluminium panel off the front of the buggy’s chromoly tube frame to show off the innovative hydraulic steering system. It allows the steering wheel to turn the wheels while in road mode, then flare the canopy wing tips for turning in the air. Another first is the 7 m hinged mast that holds the ram-air chute aloft for quick, safe takeoffs. And the Subaru engine’s splined driveshaft can be shifted from wheel drive to fan drive by pulling a cotter pin and slipping a lever.
“We’re working on the easy button,” Dyck says. The idea is to shift to flying mode without ever leaving the driver’s seat. In addition to the Huaorani, the Maverick may serve missionaries around the world, as well as farmers and ranchers, pipeline inspection crews, hunters – anyone with a lot of rugged ground to cover.
Technology aside, not everyone is a fan of I-TEC’s work. Andy Drumm, president of a Quito, Ecuador–based travel company called Tropic Journeys in Nature, thinks the Maverick “sounds innovative and potentially applicable” to the Amazon, but he has larger concerns. Drumm, a native of Wales who lives in the US, has spent the past 15 years helping Huaorani communities support themselves through ecotourism. “The religious fundamentalists’ support seems conditional on the Huaorani adopting Christianity,” he says. “I’ve seen how evangelists have opened up territory with airstrips and worked hand-in-glove with the oil companies that exploit the indigenous people.”
Saint acknowledges that he is out to promote his faith, but he says that he is a new kind of missionary. Instead of crates of Bibles in the hangar, I see boxes of reading glasses and a patented dental chair equipped with a solar-powered drill that can be carried in a backpack. I-TEC trains indigenous people to use the equipment to do basic dentistry. There’s also a pair of large crates containing the fuselage and wing of a Van’s RV-10 kit airplane. They were shipped from Shell Mera, where I-TEC runs a builder-assist programme to give indigenous people, including the Huaorani, jobs helping US amateurs build kit planes. It’s all part of what Saint calls his “engineering ministry”.
After Nate Saint had been killed, Marj moved with her children to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, but Nate’s older sister, Rachel, remained in her outpost on the edge of the jungle, still committed to missionary work. “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding,” Steve recalls. “They killed my dad, and now they’re going to kill my Aunt Rachel.”
Remarkably, within three years, Rachel Saint had moved into a Huaorani village on the Tiwaeno River, and her neighbours had begun adopting Christianity. When he was 9 years old, Steve started flying into the remote area during long school breaks and befriending Huaorani children, who used the rain forest as their playground. By that time, a strange thing had happened. “I was thinking, I’ve got to know these people who were so special that my dad was willing to die for them, my mom went on praying for them, and my aunt was willing to risk her life to live with them,” Saint says.
Another turning point in Saint’s relationship with the Huaorani came a year later. Two of his companions, the sons of a hunter named Mincaye, convinced Steve to take their father’s blowgun for a day of hunting. The Huaorani shared nearly everything – firewood, floor space – but a man’s blowgun was his own, a precision weapon he might spend a month shaping to fit his hands. Fearful but not wanting to be left behind, Steve screwed up his courage, entered the thatched hut and took the 2,5-metre weapon.
As he trod through the dim light, thorns clawed at Steve’s shorts and vines ensnared his feet. The boys left the trail in search of a fruiting tree where birds might feed, navigating muddy bluffs and moss-covered logs bridging ravines.
At the end of the day, they returned bearing a single woodpecker. When he entered Mincaye’s hut, Steve saw the barrel-chested warrior and thought, oh, no, I’m caught.
“I had been ‘nettled’ once,” Saint says. He had ruined a dugout canoe while playing with a hatchet. “The whole community encircled me, laughing and scolding while they swatted me with the plant. The barbs set my skin on fire. If that was good for a nettling, I figured taking Mincaye’s blowgun really meant trouble.” But Mincaye acted as if he hadn’t noticed the blowgun’s absence. Steve didn’t understand why, but in the following months and years, Mincaye steadily drew him into his orbit. Eventually the boy came to see the hunter and warrior as an adoptive father.
Saint’s Aunt Rachel died in 1994. At the funeral, in Ecuador, Saint learned more details about his father’s killing, but the full story became clear only a dozen years later, after Marj Saint, too, had passed away. Among her papers, Steve’s sister found a letter Rachel had written in the early 1960s. It described a conversation she’d had with Mincaye. “Your nephew is totally ignorant,” the hunter had said. The boy could not track animals, make poison darts, shoot a blowgun or even start a fire with sticks. “Who’s going to teach him how to live?” Rachel replied, “You, having spear-killed his father, who do you say should teach him how to live?” “It is true,” Mincaye said. “Having spear-killed his father, I myself will teach him how to live.”
After his Aunt died, Saint began to feel the tug of the old family trade. He sold his share of the mining business and uprooted his family to help Mincaye and other Huaorani build their own airstrip. In 18 months, he flew more than 3 300 flights in a patched-up Cessna 172, shuttling people and supplies. But the Huaorani wanted more.
“When your father came, he went fast from place to place,” Mincaye told him. “In your plane you go fast from place to place. We ourselves want to go fast from place to place.” Fifty years after Nenkiwi flew briefly with Nate Saint, Steve taught Nenkiwi’s son Tementa to operate a powered parachute. Soon Tementa saved a life by evacuating a boy who had been bitten by a lethal fer-de-lance snake.
The day after the Maverick’s test flight, Saint takes me flying. FAA rules bar me from going up in the experimental vehicle at this stage, but there are no such restrictions on Steve’s shiny gold RV-10, a single-prop plane with a leather interior and digital instruments. “When I tell people I’m flying a plane built in the Ecuadorian jungle, they expect some piece of junk,” Saint says proudly, his voice crackling in my headset. Then he punches it up to 300 km/h, slows to 100 km/h and speeds up again, climbing and banking so quickly that I grab for the dash.
Nate Saint was a daredevil as well as a dreamer, and so is Steve. In college, he used to take friends up in his Piper J-3 Cub, then charge them 10 bucks if they held on. These days, Steve rarely flies for fun. But he’ll be returning to Ecuador soon, and if he’s lucky he’ll get some time alone in his plane. Perhaps he’ll fly above the Curaray River, as he often does. But now, before returning to the ground, Saint pulls back on the stick one more time. The nose goes high and the horizon disappears. We see only the deep blue air.