Tuesday, April 5, 2011

You Can Hurt Yourself Here

Once in a while I get tasked with landing at a brand new airstrip and checking it out for our team.  A few weeks ago, I needed to check out an airstrip that has been in service since the 1960's, but it was new to us--none of our pilots had been there before.

Another mission aviation service operates in and out of the airstrip regularly, so I picked the brain of their chief pilot and anyone else who would talk to me about the place.  I also got my hands on the 'strip chart'--a document that shows how the runway lays in relation to terrain, details a bunch of numbers like elevation, width, length, slope etc, gives a textual description of how to fly the approach, and has notes on hazards unique to the airstrip.

Perusing the strip chart for this place was a bit like reading the warning label on a chain saw.  The message that came through loud and clear was: you can hurt yourself here.  Blind approach (video here), an early committal point, dogleg for takeoff, slippery when wet, bad downdrafts and a 9:00 a.m. wind curfew.  Translation: you fly a long portion of the final approach without being able to see what you're landing on, the airstrip itself is crooked, and the place is closed for operations after 9:00 because the mountain winds create turbulent conditions that can place undue stress on a pilot's adrenal glands.

I arrived overhead early in the morning when the air was still smooth and the overnight fog was just burning off.

I took my time getting a good feel for the lay of the land...but eventually I had to dive in and try this thing.  Managed to fly the approach and landing while keeping my heart rate below 120.  As advertised, the grass surface was as slick as... well, it was as slick as the upper lips of the runny-nosed kids that ran out to the airplane after I'd corralled the airplane to a stop.

Accompanied by some of the old guys from the village, and the requisite tag-along army of aforementioned runny-nosed kids, I walked the length of the airstrip measuring things and trying to determine how well the airstrip matched the description on the chart.  I used our checklist to make sure I didn't miss anything.  Walking back from the far end, I asked the oldest guy a question that wasn't on the checklist: "Anyone ever crash here?"

"Yup" he said without hesitation.  "See those trees off the end of the airstrip?  Years ago, a fellow took off late morning when it was really windy and got a downdraft right there and hit those trees.  All survived...but they were hurt really bad."  I assume he meant the people, not the trees.

So all the fire and brimstone on the airstrip chart isn't just hot air, I thought to myself.  

"Wow," I said to the old guy.

"Yeah...we hauled the wreckage right over here beside the airstrip."  He pointed at a nondescript area of really tall grass that we had walked past twice without it ever catching my eye.

He was soon leading me through the thick undergrowth to show me what was left of the airplane.  Just pieces.

Been quite the buzz on the blogosphere of late regarding the whole concept of hell.  Apparently some within the evangelical world are a bit fed up with the bad image that hell is giving God and are trying to make it go away.  Personally, I'm not a very big fan of hell myself.  Not exactly chipper that our rebellion against God will send us there either.  But since I didn't make the cosmos, I find it prudent to defer to the One who did.  So, as anti-hell as I may feel in my spirit, I'm not quite ready to write it out of my worldview.

And to those prone to dispense with hell, I would gently propose that, if hell does exist, the most despicable, unloving thing God could do would be to keep it a secret.  But this He does not do.  There it is, in plain sight, scrawled all over the pages of Scripture, tumbling out of the mouth of Jesus and the prophets before Him...like the fire and brimstone warnings on my strip chart that tell me: you can really hurt yourself here.  The pilots who have gone before me, and know that a downdraft at this airstrip can turn your airplane into a bunch of little pieces in the undergrowth, have done a wonderfully loving thing by warning me about it.  Doesn't make for especially pleasant reading.  I could always use some whiteout on my strip chart and make it a lot more palatable, but that would be fooling myself.  But to use whiteout on the strip chart and hand it off to another pilot?  That's criminal.  Their blood will be on my hands.

As a pilot I'm scared of downdrafts.  As a soul, I'm scared of hell.  And I'm grateful for the lovingly fearful descriptions of it that I read in the Bible...and I'll thank you to keep the whiteout in the drawer on this one.