Thursday, January 15, 2009, was another ordinary day in New York City. Or so it seemed. But by that evening people were talking of a miracle.
They may have been right. But the full explanation is, if anything, even more interesting and exciting. And it strikes just the note we need as we think about Christian character and "goodness" in particular.
Flight 1549, a regular US Airways trip from La Guardia Airport, took off at 15:26 local time, bound for Charleston, North Carolina. The captain, Chelsey Sullenberger III, known as "Sully," did all the usual checks. Everything was fine in the Airbus A320. Fine until, two minutes after takeoff, the aircraft ran straight into a flock of Canada Geese. One goose in a jet engine would be serious; a flock was disastrous. Almost at once both the engines were severely damaged and lost their power. The plane was at that point heading north over the Bronx, one of the most densely populated parts of the city.
Captain Sullenberger and his copilot had to make several major decisions instantly if they were going to save the lives of people not only on board but also on the ground.
* They could see one or two small local airports in the distance, but quickly realized that they couldn't be sure of making it that far. If they attempted it, they well might crash land in a built-up area on the way.
* Likewise, the option of putting the plane down on the New Jersey Turnpike, a busy road leading in and out of the city, would present huge problems and dangers for the plane and its occupants, let alone for cars and their drivers on the road.
* That left one option: the Hudson River. It's difficult to crash-land on water: one small mistake-catch the nose or one of the wings in the river, say-and the plane will turn over and over like a gymnast before breaking up and sinking.
In the two or three minutes they had before landing, Sullenberger and his copilot had to do the following vital things (along with plenty of other tasks that we amateurs wouldn't understand).
* They had to shut down the engines.
* They had to set the right speed so that the plane could glide as long as possible without power. (Fortunately, Sullenberger is also a gliding instructor.)
* They had to get the nose down to maintain speed.
* They had to disconnect the autopilot and override the flight management system.
* They had to activate the "ditch" system, which seals vents and valves, to make the plane as waterproof as possible once it hit the water.
* Most important of all, they had to fly and glide the plane in a fast left-hand turn so that it could come down facing south, going with the flow of the river.
* And-having already turned off the engines-they had to do this using only the battery-operated systems and the emergency generator.
* Then they had to straighten the plane up from the tilt of the sharp-left turn so that, on landing, the plane would be exactly level from side to side.
* Finally, they had to get the nose back up again, but not too far up, and land straight and flat on the water.
And they did it! Everyone got off safely, with Captain Sullenberger himself walking up and down the aisle a couple of times to check that everyone had escaped before leaving himself. Once in the life raft along with the other passengers, he went one better: he took off his shirt, in the freezing January afternoon, and gave it to a passenger who was suffering in the cold.
The story has already been told and retold, and will live on in the memory not only of all those involved but of every New Yorker and many further afield. Just over seven years and four months after the horrible devastation of September 11, 2001, New York had an airplane story to celebrate.
Now, as I say, many people described the dramatic events as a "miracle." At one level, I wouldn't want to question that. But the really fascinating thing about the whole business is the way it spectacularly illustrates a vital truth--a truth which many today have either forgotten or never knew in the first place.
Sullenberger had not, of course, been born with the ability to fly a plane, let alone the specific skills he exhibited in those vital three minutes. None of the skills required, and certainly none of the courage, restraint, cool judgment, and concern for others which he displayed, is part of the kit we humans possess from birth.
You have to work at mastering that sort of skill set, moving steadily toward that goal. You have to want to do it all, to choose to learn it all, to practice doing it all. Again and again. And then, sometimes, when the moment comes, it happens "automatically," as it did for Sullenberger. The skills and ability ran right through him, top to toe. (Source: N.T. Wright, "After You Believe", p. 18ff.)
Flying that plane as skillfully as "Sully" did seemed very natural to those around him, like "second nature." And it was SECOND nature. By that I mean it was not really natural but a learned, rehearsed, and ingrained action that over time Sully was able to make appear to be natural.
That, my friends, describes the Fruit of the Spirit better than anything I can think of.
(From a sermon by Ken Pell, A Fruit-full Marriage: Goodness, 8/4/2011)
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