Plane Crash: Unbelievable Trials that Lead to Unimaginable Blessings

Carolyn SearlsBy Carolyn Searls31 Minutes

Book excerpt: The Crash of the Dragonfly: Unbelievable Trials Lead to Unimaginable Blessings by Carolyn Searls


Chapter One
When the Unexpected Happens

I awoke to bright blue skies and the smell of fresh, clean air after on-and-off rain showers of previous days. A glorious air of peace encompassed me on this faraway island. Winds were calm, barely moving the leaves on the banana trees that lined the flight base runway. I looked out the window of our thatched roof home and breathed in the beauty of this tropical paradise on the Philippine island of Palawan.

With clear blue skies above, it looked like a perfect morning for a flight. I watched my husband, Rick, walk to the open airplane hangar on base. Its cement floor and tin roof resembled a carport more than a hangar. He tied a rope to the front-wheel landing gear of the Super Cub he flew, and pulled the single-engine aircraft onto the manicured grass airstrip.

Rick told me today’s mountain runway was considered a one-way strip because he could only land and take off in one direction. He had to maneuver the stick of the airplane to lift its nose up and keep the tail down at just the right angle to land uphill on the mountain’s side. He had about thirty to forty feet in width and seven to eight hundred feet in length to set the plane down and taxi uphill to a flat section just above the village.

After a routine precheck of the plane’s exterior and its engine, he called me on the shortwave radio inside our house, “618 departing fight base.” The aircraft’s number was 618.

I heard the roar of the engine and answered, “Roger, 618 departing flight base.” Procedure required that I stay by the radio during all his flights so I’d know where to send help in case of an emergency—the last point of contact.

Once the plane took off from the plush green runway, I went back to the window of our nipa house and watched the plane ascend. Overlooking the banana trees stood impressive mountains that ran down the center of the banana-shaped island. Soon the small plane became a speck in the sky. I’d wait for Rick’s next call, when he’d be on approach to land at the village.

Against all Odds

Rick and I arrived on the field. Our three children, Scott age nine, Brad age five, and Angie fifteen months old would’ve had academic and social advantages at the Manila boarding school, but it was six hundred and fifty miles away and across a section of the South China Sea. We’d rarely see them.

Living in Manila would protect them from exposure to malaria, but we felt the love, security, and emotional support we could provide as their parents in a foreign country also mattered.

We chose to homeschool our three children. This required a consistent dedication to them and their studies. A bonus of being home with us was they’d get to see tribal evangelism firsthand and share in it.

The purpose of today’s flight was to bring a missionary’s family to the flight base. His wife and two young boys would stay at the guest house while everyone else, including her husband and us, would be in Manila at an annual conference. We offered the place to her and she accepted without hesitation. Without the option of air support, she’d be in the mountain village alone with the tribe without medical care or a place to buy supplies. I felt her two young boys would relish the flat land of the base to play on instead of the hilly tribal village where they lived.

I had pancake batter in the refrigerator waiting to be fried when they returned. I wanted to treat the missionary’s family and enjoy their company over breakfast.

Knowing Filipinos didn’t feel satisfied without rice at every meal, I’d serve rice with the pancakes. It seemed strange to me, but I learned my lesson of not serving rice the hard way. I exchanged rice for macaroni and cheese one time. The young son of our guest eyed the food with a worried gaze. His sweet face looked up at his father and asked, “Daddy, where’s the rice?” Embarrassed by his son’s words, his father hushed him. But I was the one embarrassed.

I enjoyed preparing the guest house on base for their arrival. I swept the dust off the swali walls and split bamboo floors with a broom made of thin strips of bamboo tied together with twine. Swali walls were made from wide pieces of bamboo that had been softened and flattened then woven together. It helped that air could circulate through them since the heat could be suffocating.

I heard Rick’s voice on the radio.

A Safe Landing

“618 on approach at Mt Saray.”

“Roger, 618 on approach at Mt. Saray,” I repeated in the hand held microphone.

Earlier Rick mentioned he checked the strength of the wind on flights to determine if it was safe to land by watching how the leaves blew and in what direction. I hoped the Palawano tribe had kept the grasses on the airstrip cut with their bolos. It had been a while since Rick had flown into that tribal station.

Two or three minutes after he reported he was on approach, the shortwave radio sounded again. “618 landed at Mt. Saray.”

“Roger, 618 landed at Mt. Saray,” thankful he’d had a safe landing.

Safe landings weren’t taken for granted. Each airstrip had been carved out of the mountainous forest. The tribes kept their village runway smooth to help prevent an accident.

The Jungle Pilot

Rick’s military experience as a crew chief on an H-53 in Vietnam served him well as a jungle pilot. His role in missions was to support the missionaries living among the tribes in the jungles, and that’s what he’d done for the Marines and soldiers on the ground in Vietnam. The small plane he flew on Palawan made living in the mountains a little easier for the missionaries and benefited the tribal people as well. He kept the plane ready at all times since he never knew when a medical emergency would come up.

One such medical flight involved a Palawano warrior who’d been accidentally struck in his right leg with a poisonous blow dart. It became infected to the point he could lose his leg. Rick flew him to the flight base, then drove him to the doctor in the town of Brooke’s Point.

Some in the tribe felt the wounded tribesman should have asked the witch doctor to mediate between him and the evil spirits. They believed he was being punished for offending them. The witch doctor had the power to appease the anger of the spirits with the blood of the white chicken. But Rick flew the injured Palawano home with antibiotics that saved the man’s leg and possibly his life.

Another medical flight involved a tribal lady who had a possible tumor in her abdomen. After transporting the woman and her companion to the doctor, Rick flew her back to her mountain home all smiles. Her supposed tumor turned out to be twin babies. The people teased her, “You must have eaten twin bananas.” Two bananas sometimes grew together in the same rind. Palawanos have a saying that if you eat twin bananas, you will give birth to twins.

Another time I stared in dismay at a teenage daughter and her mother as Rick helped them out of the plane. The growth on the side of the girl’s face looked the size of a baseball. Her clothes looked worn, ragged, and filthy. The doctor said she had an abscess and pulled all her teeth. Rick flew them back to their village with the necessary medication to heal.

Tutubi (Too too bee)

I’d heard how excited the tribes in the mountains get at the arrival of the airplane, which they called Tutubi. Translated from Palawano into English it means dragonfly. When they heard the sound of the plane overhead, it sounded like a dragonfly to them. They also thought it looked like one because it had wings, a body, and landing gear that resembled legs with wheels—its feet.
Rick said a missionary told him when the Palawanos hear the plane they run to the airstrip shouting, “Tutubi is coming. Tutubi is coming.” Rick could see them running to it from the air. I imagine that was his greeting on this morning’s flight.

The Palawano Tribes

Poverty abounded among the tribes. They lived in some of the worst conditions Rick had ever seen. Their nipa huts were made of the same material as ours, except twine held the swali to the posts rather than nails. Their small huts stood off the ground on posts and the swali walls often looked crooked.

In our mission training, we were required to build a house in the forest with other missionary candidates from tree trunks and thick green rolls of plastic. We wrapped the plastic cover around the house’s frame and tied it to the posts with bailer twine. Our furniture had to be made with the same materials. God enabled us to accomplish something we had no idea how to do. That training made more sense now that we saw the homes of the mountain people.

The huts of the villagers are built on hills and close to a river where they can bathe, wash what little clothing they own, and gather water for cooking. Sometimes they had only a T-shirt and shorts and wore them until the cloth came apart. On one of Rick’s visits with the villagers, he saw ladies picked lice out of each other’s hair and pop the critters into their mouths, perhaps for the protein.

For food, they grew root vegetables, rice, corn, and hunted for wild animals in the forest with homemade spears and blowguns. The blowgun and darts they’d given Rick as a gift stood in a corner of our home as a token of their gratitude for his service to them.

Rice remains their main source of livelihood. They trade it in the lowlands for clothing, blankets, and other supplies. As long as they have rice, they can survive, which means they count on a good harvest.
Tribal people lived as one unit and shared everything. It was necessary to survive. Privacy was not a consideration.

A Surprise Field Trip

In the past couple of months, Rick had taken Scott and Brad on a previous flight to today’s village. When he asked me how I felt about letting them go, I hesitated. I wanted to keep them safe at home with Angie and me. However, I also wanted them to experience the ministry of tribal evangelization. I reasoned that since the Lord had directed us into this ministry, I could trust Him to protect our children. I wanted them to enjoy serving alongside their dad.

When Rick surprised the boys and asked if they’d like to help him deliver supplies to the tribal village, the boys jumped up with glee and shouted, “Yes,” and took off running to the hangar. That surprise surpassed Christmas squeals of new toys. It thrilled me to see them so happy. Their school that day would be a field trip like none other.

Angie and I watched daddy take off with two extra happy faces aboard. When they returned from the mountains, we welcomed home two glad boys, one content father, plus a new family member, a red, green, and yellow parrot.

“I named him Jing,” Scott said with eyes sparkling. He grabbed his bicycle and the little red wagon and managed to tie the handle of the wagon to his bike. With the parrot on his shoulder he pulled Brad around the base in the little wagon. I loved watching them be creative and enjoying life. Little Angie chased after them the best she could, laughing.

Another parrot was given to Brad. He named him Juicy Fruit. The boys had fun teaching them words like, “Hello, Goodbye,” and

“What’s up?”

Loosening the Grip

I felt good about letting the boys fly with their dad. Living life afraid of what could happen to our children was not an option for a productive and effective ministry. I didn’t want to raise them to fear life but to embrace it and enjoy the adventures of missions, and life itself, in the opportunities God gave.

As our children grew, I wanted to give them freedom to get to know God and see what He can do for them, and not just hear what He’s done for us. I prayed they’d see His goodness and experience His blessings personally.

It’s not easy to let go. But what choice do we really have? So much of life is out of our control.

White Monkeys

I asked Rick how the tribal people reacted to seeing white children. He said they glared at the boys with curiosity and were intrigued that they’d come. Any awkwardness the boys felt dissolved when the villagers handed them the colorful parrot. It showed their gratitude for the visit.

The reaction of the mountain people was similar to the reaction we had in town when we purchased supplies. If people weren’t accustomed to seeing white people, they stared at us, pointed, and giggled. I felt like we were monkeys in a zoo where people lined up along the fence to watch. Not only did our white skin stand out, but our blonde hair and tall frames made me realize how foreign we looked to them. The realization that I was the foreigner in their land sunk in that instant.

A few small-framed, brown-skinned Palawanos with black hair and brown eyes were brave enough to come up and pinch our children’s skin. Then they stepped back, huddled, and covered their mouths snickering. Even when our children frowned and cried out, “Ouch,” they laughed, not taking their eyes off us.

They were curious about Angie and said, “The baby girl looks like a toy doll that walks. But why does she have white hair like an old person?”

Walking to the hardware store, the town reminded me of a scene out of an old Western movie. The cement block buildings were covered in dust. Searching for supplies to fill orders for the missionaries, challenged us. Supplies were limited, as were their doctors and medicines. One upgrade in town was that the main road had been paved years earlier. I didn’t see cars in town, but jeepneys, trucks, and tricycles—a motorcycle with a sidecar—were everywhere. Most didn’t have mufflers because the travel on the road had torn them off a long time ago.

Rick should call soon that he was ready for takeoff.

The Unexpected

Before Rick would take off from a mountain village, his routine was to walk the airstrip to look for debris, potholes, or erosion from rains. Before starting the engine, he told me he opened the side window of the airplane and yelled, “Clear prop.” The villagers knew what clear prop meant—stay away from the airplane and keep your children, dogs, and chickens back to avoid getting hurt.

Everything must have checked out today because the shortwave radio sounded with Rick’s voice.

“618 departing Mt. Saray.”

“Roger, 618 departing Mt. Saray.”

I couldn’t wait for them to arrive. I’d fry the pancake batter as soon as they landed at the base.

I looked forward to the companionship of the missionary’s wife, another mother with young children. How was she coping living in a tribal village on this remote island? How did she spend her days? How did the tribe treat her and what were they like? Did she feel safe when the Palawano warriors warred against other tribes? I missed the circle of friends I had enjoyed in the United States and hoped she and I would develop a friendship.

It had been a while since I’d had someone to talk to that could relate to me. Our children would enjoy having playmates too. I imagined her boys and ours running around the flight base chasing the dog, Henry, climbing trees, building toy airplanes with scrap wood in the hangar, and playing with our two colorful parrots. I’d not worry about the snakes that occasionally showed up.

A Snake’s Visit

One afternoon after lunch Rick looked out the side kitchen window and noticed Brad standing frozen in the cherry blossom tree. From the window Rick motioned for him to stay very still. I needed to remain calm too, because hanging on a branch below Brad was a venomous black cobra.

These types of cobras, although life threatening, were shy and would usually slither away and hide unless they felt threatened. In case you think I’m adventurous and brave, let me tell you I am not. I had to survive the wild life of a remote island by faith in God’s goodness and protection like anyone else would.

Outside the house, Rick grabbed a long stick and stood a couple yards from the tree. He tapped the ground a few times to divert the snake’s attention from Brad. The space between Rick and the tree gave the snake room to escape. If it felt trapped it may have spewed its poisonous venom for self-protection.

Five-year-old Brad didn’t utter a peep or move a muscle—good instinct. He kept staring at the snake below him. The tapping of the stick distracted the snake and it dropped from the tree and slithered away in haste to the tall grasses off the property. Rick helped Brad climb out of the tree and held him to the relief of us all. Did it stop him from climbing trees? Of course not.

Our family faced two choices while living on a distant island. We could trust the Lord or be tormented with constant fears of the unknown. Knowing the Lord had prepared us for this place gave me the confidence I needed to trust Him. You won’t know the depth of courage and strength God can give you until you’re put in circumstances that require it.

Where’s the Plane?

I awoke out of my daydreaming and realized Rick had not reported that he was airborne. He should have called back within a couple of minutes. Did he forget to notify me after takeoff? I waited for a brief moment then tried to reach him.

“618, this is the flight base. Come in.”


Concern welled up in me. I knew he was rolling down the runway for takeoff on his previous call. Procedure required that he report to the base as soon as he’ was airborne. I waited, but no call came. I tried again.

“618, are you there?”

The deafening silence made me want to think the worst. I couldn’t let my mind go there. The ten-minute flight had turned into thirty. Where was he?

Maybe the plane’s radio isn’t working, or he’d taken a different route home.

I decided to step away from the radio for a better view of the sky and went to the kitchen window where I could still hear the radio if he called.

My eyes searched the tranquil blue skies for his plane. It didn’t seem right that the sky appeared so peaceful when my husband was missing. I strained my ears for the sound of the plane’s engine, but a haunting stillness permeated the air. While my insides churned like butter, I forced myself to remain calm by God’s amazing grace for the sake of the children. If Rick called, he’d need me to be able to think straight in order to help him.

Is this really happening?

Scott joined me at the window, looked up in the bright blue skies and asked, “What’s wrong, mommy?”

“I’m looking for your dad’s plane, sweetheart. He should have landed back at the base by now.”

Looking up at me with eyes full of both dread and hope he asked, “Did he crash? Mommy, is daddy dead?”

I paused, then whispered, “I don’t know.”

Something to Ponder

I once read that when faced with a crisis, your training, experience, and spiritual maturity influence how you react to it in the book “Suffering” by Paul David Tripp. If we can look back and reflect on God’s faithfulness through a difficult time, it helps us when something new happens we aren’t expecting. We can thank God for His preparation that helps us endure it. What training, experience, and spiritual maturity can God use, or has He used to see you through your troubles?

How has He comforted you?

When we’ve been able to show forth faith in the middle of a crisis and remain calm, it is because of His strength and grace at work in us. Our hearts soar with praise to our lovely Lord Jesus, who gives us hope through any calamity and fills us with His peace. “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)


Lord Jesus, keep my mind stayed on Thy truth. Help me face life in Your strength that I not be overtaken by unexpected circumstances. Because You know my future, I thank You for using trials to establish my faith that I can face challenges with courage. Truly You are a friend like no other. I surrender to Your plans for my life knowing that they are to give me an expected end with peace and not evil. I believe blessings can be born from trials when in Your hands.

Thank You for showing me more of who You are and getting me through situations I don’t like or want. Whatever the outcome, let me remember You are at work to bring all things together for good to those who love You. Bless me with a fresh vision of my God. I will rejoice in Your eternal faithfulness. May Your glory be my heart’s utmost desire. For Jesus’ name’s sake I pray. Amen.

Used by permission.