Lin, a pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship, an American-based Christian and humanitarian aid organization, had made the journey many times before. She was to take off at Lake Sentani, fly for dozens of miles over the thick, emerald jungle, climb over a pair of towering limestone mountain ridges and then, finally, descend into the valley, landing on a runway that went up a hill.
But Lin’s flight never arrived as expected. Two minutes after she ascended over Lake Sentani, she sent out an emergency distress call, radioing back to the tower that she was in trouble. The plane went down quickly into the water. Villagers who lived along the coast rushed into the lake in search of her, but it was too late.
Lin died in the crash. She was 40 years old.
Indonesian search and rescue authorities recovered her body and the plane from the water, and the cause of the crash is under investigation by authorities in Jakarta, Brad Hoaglun, a spokesman for MAF, told The Washington Post.
“She died doing what she loved, serving the people she loved in a place that she loved, that she felt deeply, deeply called to,” said her close friend Christy Geaslen, whose husband, Joel, served with Lin.
On Friday, roughly 300 people attended the beloved missionary’s funeral in Sentani, Indonesia, wearing masks and sitting in socially distant arrangements. Lin, who leaves behind her parents, two sisters and a nephew, had spent the last decade of her life attaining the flight skills required for the fellowship, trading a career in cybersecurity for what she envisioned would be lifelong service to isolated people in need.
In what would be her final chapter, she had devoted herself over the last couple months to delivering preventive covid-19 supplies to the most remote corners of Papua, as well as bringing non-coronavirus patients to hospitals in medical evacuations.
“What has become very clear over the last few days is that it wasn’t the circumstances of this single event, but the weight of her entire life that has made such an impact,” Chase Reynolds, another local missionary, said in a tribute at her Friday memorial service.
Lin, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, grew up in Colorado and Maryland before jetting off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned two degrees in computer science and engineering. She also dabbled in guitar, piano and private aviation for fun. She “was a genius,” Joel Geaslen said, and yet “she was so humble, not one to brag about who she was.”
She worked as an IT specialist for the U.S. Air Force and for a private cybersecurity firm, until she felt pulled toward missionary work, as she explained in an MAF video about her service.
When she found MAF, “I knew from that moment that this was what God had for me,” she said in the video.
“A lot of times when people think of a missionary, they don’t think of what I do,” she said. “They don’t think of flying a plane or fixing a computer. They think of someone out there evangelizing, and that’s just not what we do most of the time. My prayer each morning is simply that I would be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and I would be a blessing somehow, to somebody, that day.”
After nearly a decade of training, Lin arrived in Indonesia for language school in 2018 before beginning the humanitarian flights in Papua last year. She was part of an elite group of pilots selected by Mission Aviation Fellowship to deliver essential life-sustaining goods to some of the most far-flung and impoverished villages in the world, which are often inaccessible by car.
Lately, for MAF, that has meant delivering covid-19 test kits, fever- and cough-relief medicines, and personal protective equipment to villages where an outbreak would be insurmountable. In some cases, they deliver basic public health information, as some indigenous groups in Papua, without Internet or even electricity, were not even aware of the covid-19 threat, her colleagues told The Post.
In the weeks before she died, Lin had also spearheaded an effort to purchase hundreds of boxes of hand soap for delivery — another luxury not often found in some Papuan villages, her colleagues said.
“You look at the folks there and your heart moves with compassion,” Joel Geaslen, an MAF pilot with Lin, told The Post. “You see how much they don’t have, or the ways they live, and you think, how can I be a blessing to these folks? That’s part of what moved Joyce. She saw the needs of others and she wanted to help them.”
Lin made a point to get to know the people in the villages she visited, said Brock Larson, an MAF colleague. They would typically line the runway, awaiting the airplane’s arrival like it was the event of the month, and Lin would shake hands with all of them. She had a way with Indonesian neighbors too, befriending them quickly while silently fulfilling their distinct needs, whether it was finding a doctor or helping to fix a roof. “But she would never tell anyone about it,” Christy Geaslen recalled.
“The only time I would hear about what she did was from the neighbors. She was so good about just loving people,” she said.
Lin had just been certified to fly solo in Papua in March, a major achievement after so many years of preparation, including attaining a commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating. In a moment recalled by Reynolds during his tribute, Lin shared the milestone with her friends in an email, and said in reply to one that she had “made peace” with the risks of her missions “a long time ago.”
“It doesn’t scare me to fly,” she wrote. “If I die doing this, then I died doing what God called me to do, and I have no regrets about that.”
Two days before her death, Larson said, that peace of mind was evident. They were in a small Bible study group together, where the topic was, what does it mean to have joy in your life? The topic greatly interested Lin, because she felt that she had really found it in Papua, Larson said.
“She was just on cloud nine,” Larson told The Post from Indonesia. “It seemed she was just completely content.”
He said the impact Lin made on the lives of the people she served was clear in the tribute they left for her.
On the runway where they had expected Lin to land last week, only to hear of her death, the people in Mamit left red flowers and handwritten notes in Indonesian and English.
“Pilot Joyce Lin, 'Till we meet again,” one said.