Sunday, September 11, 2005

Flying Under the Hood

My mother got her pilot’s license before her high school diploma. She describes in glowing terms the wild freedom of soaring over the fields and curling into the embrace of the mountains that ring her childhood home in Wyoming. She reminisces about the wonder of seeing her whole dear world in one bright panorama, and the thrill of landing tight and neat on her father’s backyard airstrip, steering her father’s little Taylor-craft like an extension of herself by just leaning.

More recently, I watched my brother working toward his fixed-wing instrument rating. While it was thrilling, it was not – ever – exhilarating. To receive an instrument rating, the pilot has to spend weeks flying blind except for those instruments. The cockpit is literally shrouded from take-off to touchdown. Pilots call it ‘flying under the hood’.

They never eat before going under the hood, because the body’s entire vestibular system is horribly, nauseously confused the whole time. If you look at the instruments, they will tell you precisely where you are and whether you are banking or diving. But your mind can’t reconcile your visual record with your inner ear’s readings. There are no visual cues to tell you how the wind is catching you or whether you have overshot the runway. In fact, the only thing between you and instant death is your absolute certainty that the instruments don’t lie.

By mid-life, most of us have weathered our initial flying lessons. We’ve had our share of the power and sweep of visual flight. We’ve rescued the stranded, skirted the sudden thunderhead, landed on makeshift airstrips in strange places – at night. And we think we know flying.

So out of the blue, God slips on the hood. Nothing you can see makes any sense. Everything you feel is panic and nausea. In fact, the only thing between you and instant, eternal death is your certainty that the Scriptures don’t lie.

My husband has been taking our teenagers through the Westminster Confession of Faith. Last Sunday afternoon, we were discussing “The holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice,” a theme I’ve been over dozens of times. This is the first time I’ve understood it’s a life-and-death issue. By mid-life, neither reason nor emotion are sufficient to assert, “God is good.” Certainly not in events like Hurricane Katrina or the bombings of 9-11, which many commemorated today.

Tres Shoemaker, a pilot with the Experimental Aircraft Association who helped our eldest daughter with her flying expedition for her Congressional Award, advised, “Don’t marry a pilot who doesn’t have his instrument rating.” “Why?” she asked. “Because,” Tres answered, “if you get into real trouble, only a guy who can block out the sensory and emotional distractions, using his instruments and the VOR beacons, can bring you through alive.”

Sooo, fasten your seatbelts and pass the airsick bag.

Have you been ‘under the hood?’ Click on “Comments” to tell us about it.

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