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When you’re dealing with something as valuable and as complex and as truly amazing as a human life, even small degrees matter. All Satan needs to do is tap you a few degrees off course and you end up lost. That’s why I’m so narrow-minded about the Bible. If Susan ever lets me learn to fly, I’ll be pretty narrow-minded about my artificial horizon too.
Trevor de Nett was the navigator on BOAC Flight 251, the night of May 25th, 1952. The flight from London to Tunis had passed relatively uneventful – except for a little whiffle in the air compass. The final leg of their journey was to take them from Tunis to Accra. It should have been a simple overnight journey, except for that compass.
Back in 1952, you didn’t have GPS – you had these special compasses that required a certain air pressure to let the needle flow freely. Because of the sensitivity of the instrument, it was common practice to put a little bit of electrical tape over the opening when you did maintenance, but you took it off before flight. And every few hours, if you lost your bearings, you were supposed to take astronomical observations and plot your position.
As I said, the trip started out uneventfully. A simple hop from one coast of Africa to the other. But, unbeknownst to Trevor de Nett, the tape hadn’t come off. His compass was just a few degrees off course. It wasn’t much – maybe 10 degrees or so – but that was all that was needed.
They flew all night. By morning, they should have been there.
But when the sun rose, chief steward Len Smee knew there was a problem. If you’re flying north-south, the sun should not rise behind the tail of the plane. When he went to speak with de Nett about this curious fact, the navigator had to admit – he had been fudging the astro-charts all night. After all, the results weren’t matching up with his compass.
By 6 in the morning, they knew they were lost. But it was too early in the morning to raise anyone on the radio. When they finally heard a voice, they figured out they were nowhere near Ghana – but rather here – in Mauritania - the middle of the Sahara desert. Their plan was simple enough. Try to make it to Dakar, or even Atar, and get their bearings.
But the night was long and fuel was scarce. By 8:00 am, still mostly lost and running low on fuel, Smee woke the passengers and gave them a crash course in, well, how to survive a crash. It was inevitable now. Those few degrees had them simply too far from any runway.
Half an hour later, it happened. With no gas and no runway, the plan glided to a bumpy landing, skidding across the sand dunes, and finally coming to a rest in the middle of nowhere. Miraculously, no was killed – although the first officer Ted Haslam, had been banged up pretty bad.
As the scorching sun rose that day, temperatures rose to nearly 50 degrees Centigrade. That’s 112 degrees Farenheit. And for miles around, the horizon was nothing but mountain of sand after mountain of sand. Since they had made some radio contact, they knew they needed to stay with the plane. Hours upon excruciating hours later, they made finally made contact with the search and rescue plane. But there was nowhere for it to land. Supplies were dropped, and the passengers – including a six month old baby – simply did the best they could.
For two days, they waited with the plane. Eventually, a French medical team parachuted in. Finally, on May 30th, the decision was made. They’d have to trek nearly 15 hours to the nearest oasis. But their troubles weren’t done yet.
Sandstorms come and go in the desert like rain does here. They set out at night, in the hopes of avoiding the heat, but they didn’t count on the wind. Midway between their plane and their destination, it blew up. It was so blinding, they couldn’t move. Clearly, they were about to die, once again.
Eleven men, one woman, and a six month old baby, in the middle of nowhere, no hope of salvation.
So, Smee made an outrageous gamble. He told everyone else to stay put. He trudged on ahead – and by God’s own providence came across a band of nomadic Bedouin. He led their caravan back to his ragtag crew, and they safely led them to the oasis.
But every simple error has a price. The first officer – Ted Haslam, made to the oasis, but not to safety. He died for de Nett’s mistake on May 31st.
We too live with simple mistakes. We live our lives off the charts and by the seat of our pants. It’s easy, it’s natural. But when we get off course, as we so often do, we need a savior to lead us home. There’s a lot of sand, but only one way home. And he’s already paid with his life. Would you follow him?
When I think of the promises of God, I’m reminded of the story of the young man who had a dream to go to America. He scrimped and saved, and did everything in his power to save enough money to buy a ticket on a boat bound for America. The day came when he had precisely the amount of money needed, and he went immediately and purchased that ticket. The ship was to leave the next day, so with great excitement, and with all of his possessions wrapped neatly in a blanket he boarded the ship, and settled down for his great journey. After the first couple of days, the young man had exhausted the meager supply of food that he had been able to scrimp and save in his blanket, and he began to get hungry. He knew that if he could only survive for a few days more, he would enjoy all the riches that America promised.
It was that evening that a steward found him preparing to sleep in a secluded corner on deck. The steward confronted him, accusing him of being a stowaway. Protesting his innocence, the young man produced his ticket. The steward apologized, but then asked "but why are you sleeping here on deck, when you have quarters below"? When the young man replied that he had only enough money for the passage but no room, the steward explained that the room was included in the price of the ticket. As the steward led the astonished young man to his room, they passed the ...