I noticed the decrease in the noise coming from outside our airplane. We were about 45 minutes into a 2 hour flight. It was far too early for the airplane to be slowing down for its descent. Along with the change in sound level, I noticed a queasiness in my stomach. I glanced out the window at the cloud level beneath us. Perhaps it was just turbulence. We were supposed to fly over a cold front moving through Alabama toward our departure city, Atlanta. I continued to read my book and noticed the persistence of the queasiness. I am prone to motion sickness and after ten or fifteen minutes I decided there was something not quite right about the motion of our airplane. I glanced across the aisle at my wife. She was asleep as usual. I could never sleep on a flight. I don’t like flying at all. I never have.
“When it’s your time to go, it doesn’t matter if you are in an airplane or not.” I’ve been told. But what if it’s the pilot’s “time to go”? My father passed away in October, 2012 at the age of 98 and he steadfastly refused to fly. Why? Because in the event of a crash he didn’t want “to wake up dead.” Hmmm!
The intercom crackled and this is what the pilot said. “Well, we are on descent for a landing in Birmingham.” Our destination was Shreveport, Louisiana — not Birmingham! “Just to let you know we have lost one of our two engines and we cannot get it restarted. There is no need for alarm because we can fly perfectly well with only one engine. But, we are making an unscheduled landing in Birmingham for safety’s sake and to check out the engine. We’ll be on the ground in ten minutes.”
On the ground in ten minutes. Not necessarily the best choice of words! My heart skipped a few beats and I reached across the aisle and grabbed my wife’s hand. She was wide awake now having heard the entire message. We looked at each other wordlessly. What can you say? We could very well die. If the other engine failed, we became a flying brick — very little chance of gliding to a safe landing. So, we prayed. It was all I could think to do.
Curiously, I was not panicky. I should have been. I was a bit nervous, but that sickening feeling of impending doom never settled in. There was nothing I could do. I was at the mercy of the pilots and their skill level. The flight attendant merely smiled at us. It was a forced smile hiding her own nervousness. As she bustled down the aisle to make sure we were all belted in, the smile never broke. She had made a connection with my wife who is always gregarious and reaching out to other people to know more about them. She put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. “I knew something happened a few minutes ago. But, we are going to be fine.”
We landed without difficulty just like any ordinary landing except for the firetrucks racing down the runway keeping pace with our airplane. We all applauded at the landing and then fell silent at the sight of men clad in silver hazmat suits waiting at the gate. We pulled up to the exit ramp and the flight attendant immediately opened the door. But, the jetway stayed retracted.
“We will sit right here for a few minutes.” The pilot assured us over the intercom. “While the mechanics check out the engine. We’ll let you know in a few moments whether you will be deplaned or if we can get the engine fixed and take off again.”
Take off again? No way! I wanted OFF that airplane. It only took about 5 minutes and the jetway pulled up to the doorway. In the meantime, the flight attendant said over the intercom, “Don’t be alarmed at the fire trucks and the fire men. This is standard procedure whenever there is a engine, uh, engine, uh, malfunction.” The unspoken word was ‘fire’. She kept her cool and never uttered it.
We left the airplane and hurried into the Birmingham terminal. I glanced out the window at our aircraft. The right engine looked perfectly normal — no smoke or fire. My wife and I settled into some seats to await our fate.
Here is where things got very interesting. I am a people watcher. I love to see how people respond in unusual situations. What transpired over the next 4 hours did not disappoint me. The lady sitting next to me settled in beside my wife and they instantly struck up a conversation. I wandered down to the restroom to relieve myself and wash my face.
It took about an hour but the decision was made that a new airplane was being flown from Atlanta to take us on to Shreveport. We landed at 130 PM and we were told the airplane would land about 320 PM. A short, dumpy man sitting next to me began to mumble. “They are liars. Consummate liars. All of them. Don’t believe a word they say. If they are breathing they’re lying!” These comments returned every time there was an announcement. Mr. Grumpy continued to spew forth his vile pessimism endlessly for four hours. Over and over, he called everyone in earshot a liar. As time passed, he added curse words to his mantra. He called up the airline on his cell phone while announcements were being made overhead to chew out some hapless airline employee on the other end of the line. I finally had to get up and walk away.
Eventually we had a departure time of 4 o’clock and my wife and I and her new friend walked down the terminal to find some lunch. We settled down for an hour and my wife and her friend soon exchanged life stories.
Here is my first observation.
Women have an unlimited capacity for bonding together, even between total strangers. My wife and Vicky took only about 5 minutes to establish a level of friendly intimacy it would take a man and his friend to discover in a life time. Meanwhile, the men in the waiting room were either cursing or talking to their business destination about being late, or in one case, talking to a wife to make sure their life insurance was up to date. Business as usual for us, guys. No mawkish emotionalizing on our part UNLESS it was to ream out the airline for delaying our arrival at our destination. Men, we could learn a thing or two from our wives.
After returning to the gate area, I was amazed as I watched three men come to the desk and request some kind of refund or remuneration for the inconvenience of our our delay. Each time, the person was told that giving out cash or vouchers was not the policy of the airline when there was an equipment malfunction. All of these men went away angry and soon our waiting area was host to “twelve angry men”. However, Mr. Grumpy still took the prize. Our new airplane landed at 4 o’clock and we had a new departure time of 4:20 PM. We would be arriving in Shreveport about 5:30 PM four hours later than our scheduled arrival time. I went to the restroom and while standing at the urinal noticed that Mr. Grumpy had arrived at the urinal next to mine. He was still complaining and cursing as he emptied his bladder. I felt sorry for his body parts — they could not walk away from his complaining. But, at least he had one inseparable friend he could complain to who would never talk back!
Here is my second observation.
My wife and I were on a flight from Atlanta to Shreveport when one of the two engines malfunctioned. We could have died. But, the two pilots managed to land us safely in Birmingham. Our inconvenience ended up being a four hour delay. I would say that is more than adequate payment in exchange for our lives! Instead of being grateful we were alive, some of us were demanding money in exchange for inconvenience and others were calling the people who saved our lives “liars” and other names I shall not repeat in mixed company. I leaned over to my wife and said, “Instead of complaining we should all be grateful we arrived safely without incident and we have a flight home on the same day!” Funny how things can change if you have the right attitude!
We loaded up on the new airplane and settled into the same seats. My wife’s new friend sat beside me and asked if I had heard the complaints of “Mr. Grumpy”. Seemed everyone had. He was way back behind us safely belted into his seat and I felt sorry for those who were around him for the duration of our flight home. We had a new crew and the same flight attendant. Just before boarding, I had watched the senior pilot take his bags and walk down the terminal. I wanted to run up to him and thank him for landing us safely. In retrospect, I should have. Instead, all he heard were strident voices of complaining and cursing. The man saved our lives!
After we took off, the flight attendant was delivering drinks and paused to speak to my wife. She told us they had put her on another flight but without a flight attendant, we would not have been able to fly home, even with a new crew. She insisted on finishing out our flight to make us feel more comfortable. She shared all of this with my wife. My wife thanked her for smiling and trying her best to make us feel safe. It was then the flight attendant delivered the bomb shell. She told us she had been flying with the two pilots on our original flight for a long time. And, then she told my wife that those two pilots had just completed training the day before on a flight simulator in, guess what emergency? You got it! They had just trained in the emergent scenario of landing an airplane with only one engine! My wife glanced at me and I got all weepy and wiggly inside. God was in control! This wasn’t a random series of events at all. She smiled at the flight attendant and said “That was God.” The flight attendant nodded. “Yes, I agree.”
Here is my third observation.
And, here my foundational beliefs do bias my conclusions. I recently posted on Speculative Faith and I was not received kindly by some of the commenters. One commenter said that we place too much emphasis on sharing the Truth with a capital T as Christians. That sometimes creating something of beauty is just that. Just go with it! Another commenter said my devotion to defending the truthfulness of the Christian faith was tantamount to being a “talking head”. Hmmm. Maybe all this God talk is overdoing it. Why don’t we just sit back and enjoy the ride?
Let me state unequivocally that everything I believe, everything I cling to, every rational shred of intellect, every emotional feeling of pain or love comes from my absolutely unshakable conviction that there is a God who brought this universe into existence and has designed it and built it for His glory and that He has invited us to be a part of a grand and wondrous Story that is unfolding from the very beginning of time and space until the end of it all. And that God, the triune God of the Bible, can be known, can become a companion that dwells in our laughter and in our light and is always there in our darkest moments even when we choose to be Mr. Grumpy or seek some type of material compensation to salve our tortured souls. It is a sad commentary on our central pride and arrogance that it takes a terrible crisis to make us stop and examine what is real and what is truly meaningful in our lives and that is not hubris or things — rather it is people and souls and time spent in the glow of God’s created beings — our companions on this journey toward forever — that will last beyond this universe into eternity. And, when we arrive at that conclusion and we finally see dimly with God’s eyes this terrible and wonderful Plan that is unfolding around us then we find true joy and true peace. For ultimately God will show us always that He and He alone is in control. He is God and I am not. I’ve seen His job and I don’t want it! Like our stalwart pilot who walked away lonely but triumphant his ears filled with jeers and curses — God endures our grumpiness and our demands for the material and our arrogance and our ego and loves us still and continues to deliver us from the enemy. His amazing love is truly unconditional!
Someone once said that faith is walking to the edge of your circle of light and taking one more step into the darkness. I disagree. Faith is knowing that beyond the failing light of our lives there is more than living and dying in the darkness — for God is there also waiting for us with an open hand to take us safely through the darkness into the ultimate Light of His love and glory. And that step we take, that hand we reach out can only happen because we have seen the evidence of His power and His plan and His love. Faith is acting upon that knowledge and being willing to put aside our own selfish point of view and see the world, the universe, eternity from God’s perspective. When we do we realize that our darkness is His light!