From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
GOD'S GRACE AT 23,000 FEET
05 May 1996 12:59:00
95139 GOD'S GRACE AT 23,000 FEET
By Julian Shipp
Editor's note: On April 28 Julian Shipp led the daily chapel service at the
Presbyterian Center. This was his meditation. -- Jerry L. Van Marter
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--The following account is true. It happened Sunday, April
23, following the Self-Development of People Anniversary Convocation in
Chicago. In fact, it may be that some of the passengers on United Airlines
Flight 1634 to Louisville are among you this morning.
Those who flew on that Boeing 737 Freedom Class jetliner may joke
about it now, but the ashen complexions, stunned silence and solemn gait of
the passengers as they exited the plane said it all. I, for one, am
convinced that we came close to buying it that day. But there was this
music that I kept hearing in the distance and this incredible feeling of
calm. ... But I digress. Let me explain.
Departing O'Hare International shortly after 2 p.m. local time, the
flight started out like dozens I've taken before. Visibility was excellent
and the passengers quickly settled into the airliner thing of reading,
sleeping, scarfing down peanuts and drinks, listening to music and
conversing with one another.
Then, around 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, the turbulence began. At first,
no one paid it any mind. Hey, "turbulence," or up-and-down currents of
air, is a common phenomenon in air travel. Even white-knuckle flyers know
that. Besides, the first officer said the ride into Louisville would be
marked with the bumpy little critters, so no big thing.
By 3:45, however, conditions changed dramatically. In addition to an
uncomfortable silence from the cockpit, the sky turned from a pleasant,
personal-computer-screen blue to an angry, boiling gray -- a straight-up
tempest of the highest order.
The Boeing lived up to its name as the jet began to convulse like a
bronco with a burr under its saddle. At first, it was kind of funny to
watch everyone's head do the human wave as the aerodynamic forces of pitch
and yaw attacked the big bird.
But when the ship began to roll and I noticed that the captain was
literally standing on the speed brakes in an attempt to slow the plane
down, I knew this was not going to be a normal flight. By this time you've
probably guessed I have more than a passing interest in aviation. I'm not a
licensed pilot or anything, but like most adolescent males, I've built and
flown my fair share of model planes and have taken the yoke of a Cessna 151
or two in my day.
But that didn't add up to a hill of beans now. This roller coaster
ride wasn't fun anymore. Babies began to cry. A young woman in the aisle
adjacent to mine broke into hysterics, unable to contain her personal fear
of flying, only this time she had good reason to be afraid. Cold rain drops
began to pelt the fuselage, wings and windows. It was dark, and all I could
hear was the roar of a wind so strong it drowned the noise of the engines.
This is how the victims of the Rosemont commuter plane crash felt, I
But wait. There was something else. I don't know where this music was
coming from but I know I heard a chorus of children's voices on that plane.
It couldn't have been the ship's loudspeakers and no one was wearing
personal headphones close to me. But over the din of the gale, there it was
-- the soothing, ethereal sound of children singing.
At that moment I felt a feeling of calm and tranquillity that belies
words. It was like a force field around me that I could feel tempering the
gnawing fear that threatened to overtake me. I welcomed this presence and
immediately accepted it as the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I felt empowered. It
became crystal clear that my duty was to use my knowledge of aviation to
comfort my fellow passengers.
I broke into a play-by-play narrative of what we were experiencing
that would have made Howard Cosell proud. I told everyone within listening
distance what the ailerons were, what the speed brakes were, how the flaps
were deployed and how things would begin to stabilize once we dropped
altitude. I added to my spiel the fact that I'm a frequent flyer and --
voila! -- instant credibility.
It worked. Maybe too well. You see, another young woman seated in the
aisle next to mine somehow mistook the words "frequent flyer" for "weekend
pilot," so they thought I was a real, licensed throttle jockey who eats
chop for breakfast.
But these folks desperately needed some source of comfort and
reassurance, and I realized I was providing it for them. In fact, the
person who in my opinion needed reassurance most, the woman who just
moments before had confessed to the world that she and flying don't get
along, was calm now.
A hearty round of applause filled the cabin when the plane landed
safely shortly after 4 p.m. The winds dispersed as quickly as they had
come, leaving hundreds of people to contemplate what could have happened.
Several people thanked me as we de-planed including the woman who had
panicked. And lest you think this tale is just the product of the fertile
imagination of a writer, one of the flight attendants said she had never
experienced anything like that in her 12 years of flying.
No, I'm not the hero of this story. No one but God could have
delivered Flight 1634 safely and on time. But I reaffirmed a belief that
day that I've held for a long time. God can make a way out of no way, but
anyone can realize a miracle if they use their gifts and abilities for
For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
phone 502-569-5504 fax 502-569-8073
E-mail PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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