My Greatest Challenge
For decades I’ve started each day with a cup of tea and my Bible. I’ve prayed over every day of flying, and I also started praying for my crew and passengers. We were headed from Nashville to New York City and then to Dallas. The verse I read this day was Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus” (NLT). Sometimes a verse hits home even before I know why. This one captured my attention.
My first officer Darren Ellisor and I arrived at LaGuardia Airport, and I introduced myself to the flight attendants: Rachel Fernheimer, Seanique Mallory, and Kathryn Sandoval. In the short time we chatted together, it was immediately evident that these three women genuinely enjoyed their jobs and were women of faith. I was grateful to be working with such a great crew.
It was Darren’s turn to fly, so he took the aircraft when we pulled out on the runway, and he took off. We had been airborne for about twenty minutes and were passing 32,500 feet when it felt like a Mack truck hit my side of the aircraft. We grabbed the controls as a deafening roar enveloped us, we couldn’t see, we couldn’t breathe, and a piercing pain stabbed our ears. The aircraft snapped into a rapid roll and skidded hard to the left, initiating a dive toward the ground. Our left engine had exploded, and a piece of debris blew out the window at row 14, causing the deafening roar and sudden loss of pressure in the cockpit and the cabin.
Darren and I worked together to stop the roll of the plane, then he took the controls, bringing it down to 18,000 feet. We needed to slow down to reduce the shuddering and shaking and avoid further failure. The next order of business was to determine where we should land. With help from air traffic control, we began working out a plan to land in Philadelphia. At this time, over the deafening roar, I communicated a simple message of hope to the cabin: “We are not going down. We are going to Philly.”
The flight attendants bravely began the dangerous process of moving through the cabin, helping people secure their oxygen masks and assuring them that we were going to Philadelphia. Afterward the passengers shared how that one simple message made a difference. They were still worried, and they continued to pray and send messages to loved ones, but some of the panic began to subside.
As captain in an emergency situation, it was my responsibility to land the plane. Approaching Philly, I had my hands full maintaining control of the aircraft and communicating with air traffic control. Darren helped me, and as we assessed the situation, it became clear that we had one shot of making the runway. We did not have a second chance. As I struggled to line up with the runway, I paused and asked for help: “Heavenly Father?” I made the decisions I had to make, and it worked—we were soon on the ground. The cockpit voice recorder captured me saying, “Thank You, Lord. Thank You, thank You, Lord.”
I headed back to check on the flight attendants and passengers. Instead of frightened, anxious, and angry passengers, I was met with composed, attentive people. I reached for the PA and said, “Thank you for your patience. I am sorry. I know this was a rough ride. God is good, and we are on the ground. Thank you for staying seated while we take care of our medical emergency first.” I believe there was a terrible clarity in all our minds about the tragedy that had occurred with Jennifer Riordan in row 14. The survival of many can never eclipse the loss of one.
When all the passengers were safely off the plane, I closed my eyes briefly and offered a prayer of thanks. Darren and I walked down the stairs, where an EMT took my pulse and did an EKG. The EMT looked up at me. “How do you get through security with those nerves of steel?” “Pardon me?” I asked. “You don’t even have an elevated heart rate!” he said. “You’re completely calm.” He checked my stats again.
I believe my calm voice and pulse rate were the product of more than my training and demeanor. They’d developed over the years, nurtured through each life experience by my faith and confidence in God’s goodness. As with aircraft, it’s the Designer that I am truly in awe of. I admire the Maker of the “nerves of steel” that showed up in so many people during that forty-minute flight.
What have you learned from challenges in your past?
How has a relationship with God helped you in the midst of a challenging situation? If you do not have a relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Savior, how do you see a need for His presence in your life today?
How have your life experiences combined with your faith in God nurtured the person that you are today?