As a young boy on the island of Tongatapu in Tonga, I often climbed the coconut trees on our plantation and watched the planes take off and land on the grass airfield nearby. Perched atop these exceedingly tall trees, I longed to climb on one of those planes someday and fly off to faraway places like Niuatoputapu, one of the northernmost islands, about 375 miles away.
I had my chance to fly to Niuatoputapu in April 1983. I was a mission president and had flown to many places between islands on a five-passenger plane to attend zone conferences. Since I often sat next to the pilot on flights between islands, we had become friends. So when he invited me to be a passenger on the first flight there, I remembered my childhood dreams and said yes. What a treat it would be to take my wife, Lani, along as well. What a blessing it would be to the members and missionaries on that little-visited island to hold a missionary conference there.
We were expecting our seventh baby in June, but Lani was healthy and feeling fine. She was absolutely delighted with the idea of coming with me. As the day of the flight approached, Lani became more and more excited to go to a place she had never been before; however, I began to resist the idea of her coming with me. I had no particular reason really. I just did not have a good feeling about it. Lani was puzzled when I asked her if she would remain at home, but she agreed and didn’t complain.
Instead, at the last minute I took my counselor, Sione Schaumkel. We boarded the five-seater plane with three other passengers: Paula Vivili, a police officer; Dr. Tauhelangi Kefu, of the Ministry of Health; and a woman from the U.S. Peace Corps. President Schaumkel and I were assigned the two rear seats, Paula Vivili and the Peace Corps volunteer were in front of us, and Dr. Kefu sat by the pilot in the cockpit.
After three hours in the cramped quarters of this small plane, we were delighted to see the island of Niuatoputapu appear on the horizon. Our joy was brief, however, since the pilot seemed to be having trouble getting all the landing gear to come down. We flew over the little airport on the island at a considerable altitude, circled around the neighboring island of Tafahi, and came back toward the airport at the same altitude. The pilot, however, made no effort to land the plane, and we flew right over the island of Niuatoputapu. We realized we were on our way back home.
By now we were feeling a bit uneasy. Our fear increased when the pilot announced there was an emergency, and he had to jettison all the excess fuel. He took the plane up, turned off the engines, and released the fuel as the plane lost altitude. Then he started up the engines again and pulled the plane out of the dive. The execution of this maneuver left us breathless and somewhat shaken as we continued on. As we continued to fly south, the islands of Vava’u came into view and one of the passengers begged the pilot to land there. “The small airport isn’t equipped for emergency landings,” the pilot said.
No one talked much after that. As for me, I asked myself, “Am I ready to meet my Heavenly Father?” Since I was in the tail section of the plane, which was farthest from the door, I knew President Schaumkel and I would be last to escape in a crash. During these moments I saw my life pass before me from the beginning. I was grateful Lani and our unborn baby were safe at home. As I prayed, I began to feel a definite sensation of peace that dispelled all my fears and anxieties. I felt so reassured that I said to President Schaumkel, “Be comforted. Nothing serious will happen to us.”
It seemed forever before we saw the island of our home—Tongatapu. We flew low over the Fua’amotu airport control tower so the people could confirm what we feared—the front wheel of the landing gear was jammed. Below, we could see fire engines, an ambulance, policemen, and soldiers from the Defense Force. People crowded onto the field. We knew we were in big trouble.
We made our final turn and descended to the small grassy field. The back wheels touched firmly down onto the grass. With no front wheels, the pilot carefully brought the nose of the aircraft down. I shouted to President Schaumkel, “Lean forward and duck!” We both bent forward at the same time, with our heads against the seats in front of us. In the very instant its nose touched the grass, the plane somersaulted and crashed violently upside down with the wheels in the air. The plane skidded forward, tail section first. The screeching of metal and cries of the passengers filled the air. President Schaumkel and I remained conscious throughout.
When the plane stopped skidding, I noticed that the window on President Schaumkel’s side had popped out. It was only about the size of a car window, but it would be big enough for us to crawl out. We unbuckled our seat belts and scrambled out in a matter of seconds. The plane was twisted, but we had not been seriously hurt. Could my sweet Lani have been hurt or killed? Could this crash have caused our baby to come early or die? I felt we had been saved by divine means.
We climbed out of the plane on the side of the runway on the opposite side of the crowd. Still in our clean white shirts and ties, we were standing near the tall elephant grass at the edge of the field. No one could really see us, nor had anyone seen us escape from the plane. We walked around the plane. Again, no one seemed to pay any attention to us. Rescuers were struggling to open the only door to the little plane, which was jammed shut. Gratefully there had been no fire, or perhaps none of us would have survived.
As the rescuers worked to free our fellow passengers, we made our way to the hospital vehicles. When we climbed into the back of the ambulance, the attending nurse told us to clear out. Being obedient, we quietly got out, walked around, and climbed into the front seat. We watched the rescue and contemplated, with much gratitude, our miraculous escape. We were worried about the others, including my friend, the pilot.
At last they pried the front door open. The pilot, Dr. Kefu, and the Peace Corps volunteer were alive but injured. Paula Vivili was dead.
“Where are the other two passengers?” the rescuers yelled. “There were two more passengers!”
I said to the nurse, “Tell the rescuers the two passengers they are looking for are sitting right here.”
The nurse whirled around and looked at us: “Were you on this flight?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s why we got into the ambulance in the first place.”
Embarrassed but happy, she came up and kissed our cheeks in the typical Tongan greeting, then ran out to tell the others we were safe.
Well-wishers surrounded us immediately, people of all ranks, including cabinet ministers. They kissed us and fussed over us, asking, “How could it be that you should have survived without injury?” The people were profoundly moved by the discovery that we had escaped unhurt, unnoticed, and unruffled. Official investigators from New Zealand were amazed that the tail section we sat in had not broken off upon impact. As people talked about the disaster, they were curious, and it became a means of opening doors for preaching the gospel. It was a testimony to us and the people of the Lord’s care for us.
This experience increased my faith and gratitude to my Heavenly Father for His protection and the preservation of my life. I am thankful for the promptings of the Spirit to me that my wife should not come with me on this flight and that she had faith enough to listen to me and believe. Perhaps things would have been different if Lani had been in the plane crash with me. Not only was our seventh child born healthy, but we eventually had an eighth child. My faith has increased steadily as I have learned that living the gospel brings peace, which is especially appreciated at times of difficulty, such as this plane crash.
“The Holy Ghost communicates with the spirit through the mind more than through the physical senses. This guidance comes as thoughts, as feelings, through impressions and promptings. It is not always easy to describe inspiration. The scriptures teach us that we may ‘feel’ the words of spiritual communication more than hear them, and see with spiritual rather than with mortal eyes.”
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 14.