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Weird Events Aboard an Airplane

June 3, 2014

Airline travel has been one of the most unusual parts of my ministry.  Did I say “unusual”? Too soft of a word.  More accurately, I’ll just say sometimes it gets downright weird.  From the first time I boarded a passenger plane as a college student to my most recent flights in imagedoing mission work on the West Coast, rarely have I have a time where I did not find myself in a strange situation.

I guess I’m not meant to have a normal, quiet flight.  This is a sobering thought, since I am flying out to California next week on a mission trip.

I should have known my life as an airline passenger would take an odd twist from the day of my very first flight out of South Carolina, a “puddle jumper” to Atlanta that was less than a half an hour in the air. I was a freshman in college at the time. I stowed my gear in the overhead bin and sat down uncertainly, checking and double-checking my airline tickets.

“This your first flight, son?” asked the distinguished gentleman seated next to me.  I nodded my head sheepishly and asked, “How did you know?”

“Ah, I could tell,” he said lazily.  “It’s in your eyes.  It’ll be okay, though.” He introduced himself, shaking my hand.  “I’m here on business, working on a mall project in the Spartanbug area.  I’ve been a part of designing a couple of malls here, the latest one in Greenville.”

“You’re a pretty important man,” I said admiringly.  “You fly a lot, then, I gather?”

He nodded slowly and carefully.

“Do you like it – the air travel and all?”

He shook his head slowly.  “Hate it.  Every minute of it.  But I get by.  It’s a secret.”

I thought I noticed something unusual about him…

“I get drunk before take off,” he said, raising his hand toward the flight attendant.  “Miss?  Another drink?”

And he was pretty loose by the time we got in the air.  He became my buddy, in his words, and told me very happy stories and very sad stories, all with great emotion.  I’m not sure how he made it down the steps to the next plane.

For my younger readers, I want to explain that rules were different in the early years.  Travelers could order drinks before take-off.  People could smoke freely in the cabin, except in “designated areas,” which I found personally hilarious.  The only “smoke free zone” was a small sign stuck with Velcro to the back of a seat.  The fact that we were all stuck inside the same aluminum tube didn’t seem to be taken into account.  On one occasion I got a discount seat on the very first Eastern airline non-stop from Baltimore to Los Angeles.  As a gift to each passenger, the airline gave a small bottle of wine, about a pint, if my memory serves me.

People started celebrating and swapping drinks. The flight got delayed.  Bolstered by that initial bottle, people ordered more.  And smoked.  By the time we got in the air, there were so many tipsy people stumbling about in that smoke-hazy cabin, I thought I was in a barroom scene from a late night “B” movie. One man actually smacked his head on the overhead movie screen and fell right into a row of people.

Then there was the time that I was on a Delta flight and sat next to a high priestess of a Southwestern desert cult.  After she told me of the rising Phoenix which brought about the reincarnation of the adherents, she was most interested in the teachings and ministries of Jesus.

That’s where it becomes fun.  I get to share my ministry opportunities on board.  Yes, I try to get a chance to tell people about Christ in-flight.  To quote the Scripture, I want to be “instant,” ready to share the Good News if someone should ask.

And you’d be surprised how many times they ask.

After the plane levels off and we get the “okay” light, I’ll usually put down my tray and start reading the Bible.  After all, what better time to have a Scripture study than when you’re seat-belted into a chair for three or four hours? Someone next to me will inevitably notice the Bible and start asking questions. This has led to some great discussions, and the newfound friend leaves with a seed planted in his or her heart.  I have never had anyone become agitated or combative in these conversations; after all, they were the one who opened up the conversation.  Every one has been congenial and respectful.

I was on a non-stop flight from Los Angeles and had opened up my Bible for a quiet time of reading.  I had just spent a week in California speaking at some camps and churches and I was pretty drained.  I was all settled in as the plane lifted off the runway and we heard the announcement that allowed us to use the trays.  I put my Bible on the tray along with a note pad.

“That’s a Bible, isn’t it?” said a young woman seated next to me on my left.

“Yes, it certainly is,” I replied.  “I’m Brad.”

“I’m Robin.”  She pointed to the open Bible. “I know a little about it, but I’ve never really read it.  Is it a book on morality?”

“It contains some great lessons on morality, Robin, but it goes much deeper than that,” I said.  “It tells me about the future.  Where I can spend eternity.”

“Oh, yes, salvation and all that,” she said.  “I’ve always been intrigued by Jesus, but my husband and I have never really taken it seriously.  Do you read it a lot?  Can you explain this salvation stuff to me?”

“Certainly!” I replied happily.  “You see this book all centers on  – ”

POP.

Something exploded in my ear canal.  The pressure in ascending somehow affected my ears.

I was completely and totally deaf.

And I mean deaf, brother.  I couldn’t hear a thing.  I nervously took my hand and snapped my fingers near my right ear.  Nothing.

I looked at Robin.  She was chatting about something and pointing towards the book of John. I couldn’t hear her.  I couldn’t hear the airplane engines.  For crying out loud, I couldn’t even hear myself speak.

I started watching her lips.  Yes, I could make out some questions.  I stumbled through answers the best I could, trying to guess what she was asking.  I was hoping against hope I was matching my answers to the questions I was assuming she was asking.

This went on for the entire flight.  She was intrigued and getting animated.  I was praying and carefully pronouncing my words, hoping I wasn’t introducing some error because I answered the wrong way.   I decided that if I slowed my speech down, I could get a grip on how I could explain it.  I went to half-speed in my explanations.  I wonder if Robin thought I had incurred a mental fall-out.  Well, she seemed intrigued.

I pointed and gestured.  I wrote things on the airline napkin.  I nodded and shook my head.

We started descending.  Robin was in full conversation.

POP.  It was so dramatic, it hurt.

I could hear again.  The wheels were touching the runway.  Robin looked at her watch and smiled.

“Well, I’ve got a lot to think about.  This has been a very interesting conversation,” said Robin.

And I never heard a word of it.

Yet the most dramatic in-flight Bible discussion was when I could actually hear, although it was indeed noisy on board.

I was flying a final leg into Baltimore, and I was on one of the smallest commercial airplanes in the industry: a turbo-prop plane.  This plane must have held no more than twelve people at the time, and we were flying into a storm.  This little craft’s propellers were winding and grinding against a sudden squall that was battering us.  The propellers were actually changing in pitch and speed as the wind buffeted us.  We kept hitting what is called “air pockets,” and although I cannot fully explain this phenomenon, it gives the sensation of losing control of the plane and dropping straight down.  Those readers who have experienced it know what I mean.  You get the feeling that you are plummeting right down an elevator shaft.  It is scary.

I was seated next to a fellow named Don, and he took an interest in my Bible reading.  “Say,” he called out about the storm noise and the propeller whining, “that’s a pretty good book to have in your life.”

We hit an air pocket and I grabbed my Coke before it fell off the tray. “Sure is,” I agreed.  “Say, Don, did you ever consider your destiny?  This book tells you all about it.”

The plane shook.

“Well, I have a more immediate destiny to consider,” he called to me.  “I’m starting a deli in downtown Baltimore.  I got the loan and I just finished up my advertising campaign.  I’m going to be selling subs and fries and soups – I’m really concentrated on that future right now.  I’m pretty excited.”

Then we hit another air pocket.

The worst one on the entire flight.

In fact, I would venture to say that this was the Mother of All Air Pockets.

The propellers gave an eerie pause and we dropped.  And I mean dropped.  It felt like we plummeted for ten straight seconds.  It was so dramatic that my Coke spilled off the tray.  Papers started to slide.  Don grabbed the armrest.  I admit, I was truly scared and called out “Dear Lord!” as it seemed like we were free falling out of the sky.  I could see Don’s wide-eyed panic.

Finally, finally the propellers gained their rhythm and we got back to normal.  I was wet with sweat.  Don’s fingers were clenched on his armrest.

We sat staring at the front of the plane for a full minute before speaking.

“Well, you know,” Don finally said slowly, “maybe I ought to think beyond the deli, shouldn’t I?  Why don’t you tell me about what’s in this here book?”

God has many dramatic ways to bring to people the reality of eternity.  I think He introduced that to Don that night.

I’m flying out on a mission trip this next week.  Things should be pretty normal, right?

Wait until I write my traveling blog next week.  You’ll see.

 

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2 Comments
  1. Excellent read. Please feel free to share your inspiration at Godinterest. God Bless Your Ministry.

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