I’m no stranger to commercial air travel. I’m not afraid to fly. However, I still listen when the flight attendant says, “Please give us your full attention while we review the emergency procedures.” That’s because an emergency landing once got my full attention.
It was Veteran’s Day weekend, and my husband was serving overseas in the military, preparing for Desert Storm. I decided to visit a friend in Los Angeles. Rather than drive all day, I chose to fly standby with my five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. I thought a one-hour flight would be a piece of cake.
What could go wrong?
We boarded a 737 jet at the Sacramento airport with twenty-six other souls. We had barely settled into our seats when the flight officer told us we’d have to leave the plane: One of the tires needed changing. Since it was a direct flight, I didn’t mind the one-hour delay.
Back on board, I helped my children buckle their seatbelts. We sat in the middle of the plane, near the window exits, and half listened while the flight attendant explained the emergency procedures.
My children often traveled by air, but they grew wide-eyed with wonder as the plane sped down the runway and rose above the farmland’s checkerboard pattern.
My excitement fizzled fast. What’s that noise?
I strained my ears to identify the sound. It was a low roar, like wind rushing through an open door. I glanced around to see if anyone noticed.
My jaw dropped. A pilot strode toward us and knelt in the middle of the aisle. He peeled back a section of the carpet and looked through a hard plastic view port in the floor.
This doesn’t bode well. What is he looking for?
From my aisle seat, I could see blue sky beneath the view port. Goose bumps surfaced on my skin when I realized what little stood between me and 35,000 feet of space. Even more disturbing was the pilot’s furrowed brow and pinched lips.
The pilot replaced the carpet and rushed back to the cockpit. Passengers who had been strangers minutes earlier now made eye contact and exchanged witticisms. Our awkward laughter stopped when a subdued voice came over the intercom.
“Folks, this is the captain speaking. I need your attention. I can’t raise the landing gear, so we’re going to divert into the San Francisco airport to fix the problem. However, we’re not sure the landing gear is all the way down. So we’ll need to prepare for an emergency landing.”
Did he say, “emergency landing”?
Men looked up from their newspapers. Those who dozed sat up straight. My stomach sank as a female flight attendant hurried toward the rear of the airplane. Avoiding our questioning eyes, she carried a large, blue binder labeled Procedures.
Another flight attendant directed us, “Please read the emergency cards located in the seat pockets in front of you.” Her breathy, high-pitched voice belied her calm demeanor.
I didn’t want to alarm my children, but they needed to know how to get out of the plane. And I needed to know someone would help them evacuate if I was incapacitated. I envisioned thoughtless adults stampeding over my children to save their own necks.
I studied the man across the aisle from us; his hands shook. Not good enough. I waved at the flight attendant to come over and expressed my concerns.
She nodded and proceeded to divide the passengers into thirds. Some were seated in first class, near the front door. Others were seated in the middle of the airplane, near the window exits. The rest of us moved to the rear of the plane. I sat between my two children in the last row and was relieved to learn two muscular men had agreed to open the rear door and assist people.
I tried to sound matter-of-fact as I explained the situation to my children. “The plane’s wheels are stuck. If they’re not all the way down, the plane will land on its belly, and it’s going to be loud and bumpy. The captain wants to keep us safe, so when he yells, ‘Brace!’ three times, put your head down near your knees. After the plane stops, go out the back door.”
I showed them the emergency card with images of people on the inflatable emergency slide. My daughter grinned and nodded as though playing a game. I couldn’t read my son’s poker face. Neither of them understood why I urged them, “Do not wait for me. You get out of the plane as fast as you can. Someone will help you.”
Silence and fear
As we approached the airport, the flight attendants took their seats. A deadly silence pervaded the cabin as though the Grim Reaper had appeared.
My shoulders felt like someone was squeezing them with their nails, but I wasn’t afraid for myself. As a Christian, I didn’t fear death. I knew “My times are in Your hand” (Psalm 31:15, NKJV) and that one day I would see Jesus face to face.
Rather, the fear surging through my veins was for my children’s welfare.Lord, please keep them safe.
The captain’s sharp voice cut through the cabin’s silence. “We’re going to fly by the air traffic control tower before we land. They’re going to use binoculars and try to determine if the landing gear is down. Then we’ll circle around and land. Remember to lower your heads when I yell, ‘Brace!’”
Tension in the cabin accelerated as we zoomed by the control tower. Fire trucks and ambulances stood guard on the tarmac; their flashing red lights sent shivers down my spine.
The plane increased its altitude, and the vehicles grew smaller as we flew upward and circled back toward the long, black runway that would be our welcome mat — or not. As the plane descended, I reminded myself to breathe, but the captain’s booming voice startled me and sucked the oxygen out of my lungs.
“Brace! Brace! Brace!”
While I lowered my head, I smiled and gently pushed down my children’s heads.
“Jesus is with you,” I whispered, my voice cracking.
Jesus is with you.
Words spoken to reassure my children rebounded into my own heart and reminded me of God’s promise in Deuteronomy 31:8. “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (NRSV).
Lord, if I believe You’re with us, then why should I be afraid for my children? You know the number of their days. If the plane crashes and it’s not their time, I can trust You to get my children safely off the plane — with or without my help. You will not forsake them. I have Your promise.
I stared at my children’s innocent faces, but they didn’t seem defenseless with Jesus at their side. My heart did a cartwheel, and fear lost its grip as I surrendered my children into the Lord’s capable hands. Without the burden to save them, I rested like a weaned child in her Father’s arms as
. . . the plane landed smoothly and rolled to a stop.
There was a collective sigh as passengers raised their heads, clapped. and cheered. Giggling, my daughter turned to me and said, “I liked landing with my head down. Do we still get to go down the slide?”
Tongue-tied, I shook my head. I was still basking in the glow of that euphoric moment when God impressed truth upon a human heart.
Relief, joy, and Jesus
I don’t know how the Lord worked in other people’s hearts that day, but the mood became celebratory. Flight attendants offered beverages to quench people’s thirst and soothe frayed nerves, while mechanics examined the landing gear. We were told the previous mechanic had left a locking pin in the landing gear after he changed the tire. That pin had kept the gear from retracting.
The flight from San Francisco to the Ontario airport was brief, uneventful. My emotions were a compilation of relief and joy: relief the plane didn’t crash, joy because I had experienced first-hand the peace of Christ during what seemed like a calamitous moment.
To this day, I believe that emergency landing was like a dress rehearsal preparing me for the real deal. One day, my time on earth will be over, and I’ll fly away. But now I know — I won’t be afraid because Jesus will be with me. He promised.
(My article appeared today in Bible Advocates’s Now What?)