Arriving at the guest house in Shell just before dusk, we were greeted by the sound of a turbine engine overhead. Searching the sky, I spot our Kodiak ascending from the local airfield for the final flight of the day.
MAF has a long history in Ecuador, beginning in 1948 when MAF missionaries Nate and Marj Saint established the current base using a single Piper PA-I4.
Today, MAF operates in Ecuador with five aircraft as a self-supporting affiliate known locally as Alas de Socorro del Ecuador (Wings of Help, Ecuador), or ADSE.
A new plane
In short succession, three Cessna 206s are aligned for take-off from the ADSE base. Weather-permitting, each will make between three and four flights, and average between ten and twelve landings today.
Then parked in the shadow of a brand new hangar built especially, we catch a glimpse of the new Kodiak. We await permission to actually fly in the plane from Ecuadorian Civil Aviation Authority so we admire it from the ground, excitedly taking it in turns climbing in and out of the plane.
Flight into history
A few days later, the plane’s generous donors have the opportunity to fly in a 206 to Palm Beach, the location of the attack that claimed the lives of five missionaries in 1956, including MAF Pilot Nate Saint. But the town of Shell where ADSE is based is itself is as much part of the living history of MAF as the remote scene of tragedy.
The Saint’s house still stands as memorial to his service and sacrifice, while a replica of Nate Saint's plane atop an oil rig, graces the town centre; reminding its inhabitants of both the oiI industry that founded the town and the five missionaries that tragically lost their lives in 1956.
MAF Pilot Chad lrwin and Dan Whitehead MAF's Regional Manager for Latin America are now the only expats on the base. Both are working themselves out of a job. All other positions including pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, avionics technicians, and operations and office staff are held by Ecuadorians; a testament to the transition to self-sufficiency that began almost 70 years ago.
Flights for the future
We receive word that a one-time exception had been made to fly in the Kodiak. So with Chad as Captain and Ecuadorian Pilot, Daniel Soría in the right seat, we climb aboard and take to the skies, arriving at a Waodani village called Tiweano, a short 15 minutes later. The Cessna 206 would have taken almost twice as long.
A warm welcome
Smiles from faces young and old greeted us as we disembark. Among those who greeted us is Dyuwi Tani, one of the members of the killing party that claimed the lives of the five missionaries so long ago. He's old - no one really knows how old - and frail, but he wouldn't miss this for the world.
We are shown the modest clinic complete with multiband radio. A solar panel charges a battery, allowing the village nurse, Mencaye Yeti, to make emergency calls and schedule ADSE flights as needed.
Village church leaders, dressed in traditional attire, take it in turns to share their greetings and testimonies. Our hosts sing 'I have decided to follow Jesus ' in Huaorani.
I catch a glimpse of Chad sitting to my left. I have no idea how many trips he has made to this village, or how many times he's heard these stories, but his eyes are full of tears; the unmistakable sign of someone with a deep love for the people he serves.
Linen table cloths and centrepieces of roses adorned the tables in the Kodiak's hangar on the dedication day; transforming it from an empty, utilitarian space into a ballroom. ADSE staff and families mingle with missionaries, Waodani tribesmen, and government officials. The aircraft’s donors are seated near the front at a table of honour; a place they would not have chosen for themselves.
Sharing a few words with the assembles gathering; their words echo the words of Jesus; 'To whom much is given, much will be required.' They have blessed MAF as they themselves have been blessed. But surrounded by the many people who will benefit from this amazing tool - they would tell you that they received an even greater gift in return.