Saturday, January 16, 2010

Far from perfect?

A certain professional golf player, who won’t be named, in what we now know to be perhaps the understatement of 2009, admitted that “I’m far from perfect”. I have a few things in common with him. He plays golf, so do I. Well, it might be a stretch to call it playing, but I try. He’s travels away from his home quite a bit, so do I. He’s far from perfect, and so am I. Actually, so are all of us.

Don’t get the wrong idea; I’m not like the philandering pilot in “The Pilot’s Wife”, showcased by Oprah’s Book Club. I’m devoted to my wife, and take my marriage vows seriously. But like the bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”, I’m still human.

Since it’s a new year, and resolutions are common, the subject of perfection and being perfect is appropriate. Being perfect is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. I feel like sometimes this blog mistakenly makes the impression that I’m expressing how good of a person I am, how obedient I am to God and what not. That is not the purpose. My intent is to share the experiences I have both as an airline pilot and as a Christian, trying to follow Jesus Christ in word, faith, and deed. I wish to glorify God and illuminate Christ. I struggle, I sin, I fail, I fight temptation, and I suffer. But I also pray, study God’s word, praise and worship Him, share my faith with others, revel with God and glorify him in my victories, and try to love others as I do myself.

Nobody’s perfect is a trite saying, but one that we all have in common, whether you’re the Pope or a pauper, President or Pro Golfer, Parent or Pilot. Honestly, we are all ‘far from perfect’. God’s view on this is shown in Romans 3:10-12, 18, and 23 as this theme: “10As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; 11there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." . . .18"There is no fear of God before their eyes." . . . 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Well, there is one exception to that rule. There is one man who lived a perfect life, and never committed a sin. I’m speaking of Jesus Christ, of course. He did God’s perfect will, sometimes even surprising his parents and offending others in the process, and though he was human like us and was tempted like us, he never sinned.

Scripture backs me up. From Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Just after the Holy Spirit descended on him as he started his earthly ministry, he was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-10). And from II Corinthians 5:21: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

There’s more, from Hebrews 9:14 (NLT) “Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.”  And Hebrews 7:28 calls Jesus our ‘perfect High Priest’.

The naysayer might want to (1) debate whether Jesus lived a perfect life, and (2) also say ‘so we know we’re not perfect, so what? God still loves us anyway, so he would accept me into heaven, I’m not a bad person’. The first point is another subject, maybe for another day.  On the second point, yes, God still love us, but He commanded the Israelites in the Old Testament to “be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

In the Old Testament, God’s people kept disappointing him with their sin and wickedness (not being holy), and God had Moses and Aaron institute a prescribed and precise system of animal sacrifice, which by the spilling and shedding of blood (because the penalty of sin is death, and spilling of blood represents death) would atone for the sin of the people and make things right with God (Leviticus chapters 16-17).

By the time Jesus was born (start of New Testament) and started his ministry 2000 plus years ago, the system of animal sacrifice for atonement of sins was firmly established. Then Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and at the end of it commanded us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Now didn’t God say in Genesis that he created man in his image? And Adam and Eve for a time didn’t sin, at all. So on the basis of God’s creation it’s actually somewhat valid for him to expect us to be perfect.

Let me get this straight, you might say. Not only is God and Jesus Christ perfect, but He wants us to be perfect? Yep. According to the Bible, we need either to be perfect (a very tall order indeed) or we need a fix (they say fix in Oklahoma, where I’m from originally), or a repair, or a remedy for our imperfectness. What I mean by this is a way to look like we’re perfect to God, even though we’re not. I think most all of humanity, when it comes down to it, would choose the latter option.

Jesus Christ himself is the fix for our imperfectness, and the way to repair the broken relationship we have with God due to our sin. He is the Son of God, part of the Holy Trinity, which is portrayed and displayed in the Old and New Testament. Thusly, he is God, and admitted as much in the gospels before he was crucified on the cross.

Do I mean Jesus will help us not commit sin at all and be perfect? Yes and no, kind of. Walking spiritually ‘in Christ’ will grow a desire in your heart to please God with your actions, desires, and thoughts. Avoiding sin only because you know its wrong quickly not only becomes tiring, it becomes impossible! Also, can imperfect humans really be perfect, really? Not by our own efforts, not by our own works. Even the Pope and Billy Graham sin. So where does that leave us, desperate?

For a moment only; no, that leaves us totally and completely dependent on Christ to perfect us, to make us perfect. But does the Bible say He does this? Yes! From Hebrews 10:14: “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Christians being sanctified).” There it is, straight from the Holy word of God. We REALLY CAN are made perfect in God’s eyes, without actually being perfect!

This is a lot to chew on spiritually. For more explanation, I found it was good to read the sections from Hebrews 7:23-28Hebrews 9:13-15, and Hebrews 10:11-18 (all NLT). Also consider the phrase ‘in Christ’ from the standpoint of John 15 (‘I am the vine, you are the branches’) and as well as from John 17:23 (NLT) when a pre-crucifixion Jesus prayed for future believers: “I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” Christ is perfect, and he is in us and we are in him. Hallelujah!

What can I share about flying lately? Well, I’m not perfect there either. Things occasionally happen, despite my best intents and efforts that I don’t share unless you’re a fellow pilot at my airline that I’m comfortable sharing it with. No, I can’t divulge the details; it didn’t require a visit from the Chief Pilot or the FAA. Let’s just say the complacency curve caught up to me, and something happened which made me ask “how the heck did that happen?” When I make errors, or mistakes, usually it’s ones of small significance, customer service related, or one where the Co-Pilot and I agree that it just amounts to ‘style points’. But sometimes, well, ‘stuff’ happens.

OK, I give, as I frequently do. We were taxiing out of a Birmingham, Alabama, about a month ago at ‘dark O’Clock’ in a pounding, cold rain. We were a little late because of a number of frustrating occurrences, some caused by a seemingly inept ground crew, some caused by a broken and uncooperative airplane.

The ramp crew hadn’t serviced our jet properly during the overnight, and I had to request water for the galley and lavatory, and a ground power unit (GPU) and air start cart. You’re heard these terms before and together they mean our APU (auxiliary power unit) was broken. When the APU is ‘inop’ we need a GPU for electricity and a start cart to provide air pressure to start our engines. The cabin not being clean enough was minor at this point.

They got us water and the aforementioned equipment, then boarded us and we prepared to start engines, only to see that the tug driver couldn’t make his headset work to communicate with us for the pushback. Eventually he got it working intermittently, and then our left engine had trouble starting correctly. The start was fine, but when it was completed we kept getting a red warning light and text and audible message ‘engine oil pressure’ telling us that the oil pressure on our left engine was too low. Upon checking the actual oil pressure gauge and the other engine indications, the reality was that the pressure was fine, and I surmised that so was the engine. It was entirely logical that the warning was not correct, but with a $2 million engine and a warning that won’t go away, you can get antsy quickly. I shut down the engine, we started the right engine, and planned to start the left one again, and we tried to communicate this to our soaked to the bone ramp agents through the rickety headset connection. Upon starting the left engine again the message wouldn’t go away, so I called for the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) procedure for low engine oil pressure. The checklist basically said if you have both gage and warning message indications of low oil pressure, shut down the engine, if you have conflicting indications, keep it running and monitor it. Just about then the message did go way.

The ramp crew, in their yellow slickers, had about had enough. To get them out of the rain, I resolved to call maintenance and report our trouble in starting the left engine, but do it after taxi while sitting next to the runway. We finished our checklists and prepared to taxi out.

Leaving a rain soaked, black asphalt ramp at an unfamiliar airport for the very first time, at a dark hour of before sunrise would prove to be interesting. There had been so much rain and moisture that our windshield had fogged up on the inside surfaces, like you get on a car sometimes. I asked my FO to select high on our windshield heat instead of low. For some reason he was reluctant to do so, so I did it myself. The high setting would remove the fog on the windshield sooner. Windshield heat is a super powered version of rear window defogging on a car. We started taxiing out from the ramp to the taxiway after receiving taxi clearance from Birmingham ground control to taxi to our departure runway.

Feeling our way past the terminal and other aircraft, the wipers were doing okay in clearing the rain and the fog was slowly being removed from the windscreen. Two ‘islands’ (areas you can’t taxi over), wrapped in the blue lights taxiways are identified by, were ahead of us, and it looked like we could go right between both of them. Getting closer I slowed the plane down and we both peered through the drops on our windshield. “I don’t see lights on the inner sides of the islands” I said. My FO, a really good guy to work with but a new pilot at our airline, with only about 500 hours total time in jets, agreed. Approaching with about ten yards left to reach the islands I noticed that there was a green reflector in the ground right ahead of us, then the depth and width of the drainage ditch I was about to drive the plane into blossomed into full realization in the threat area of my brain. After an exclamation or two, a brake application and a sharp turn to the left around the ‘two’ islands which in reality were one, we found the taxiway down to the runway.

Fortunately I had been taxiing the jet slow enough to see the danger, slow down, and turn out of the way. We surmised that sometime in the past a blue light and post had been broken and the airport had replaced it with just a green reflector on the ground. The ditch was one to two feet deep and about three feet wide, and would’ve ‘ruined our whole day’ had I driven the plane through it.

At a holding ramp next to the runway, I called our maintenance department. When I reported our engine starting difficulty they agreed it was just an anomaly, and advised us to keep an eye on it, as we certainly would. The engine never gave us any more trouble the entire day, which involved five legs worth of flying.

The temperature in this moderate, constant rain was a cold 3 degrees Celsius, or about 38 degrees Farenhight. That required that we takeoff with our wing and engine cowl anti-ice systems turned on. Because our jet doesn’t have takeoff and landing performance calculated (it wasn’t certified this way to increase available payload) when operating without the APU on while using hot air from the engine for wing and engine cowl anti-ice, we would have to perform the takeoff with the cabin unpressurized, and consequently perform an unpressurized landing and takeoff at Charlotte, Huntsville, and Washington DC. I could explain more but at this point it would be too confusing and diverting from the story; just know that an unpressurized takeoff or landing is a pain in the butt!

After we briefed this procedure, I took a little time to consider with my Co-Pilot what we could’ve done better to avoid ‘driving it into the ditch’ in the first place. I should’ve selected high on the windshield heat immediately, and not taxied until it was clear of fog. I should’ve looked at the airport diagram closer and defined and briefed our taxi route from the ramp to the taxiway, before the plane started moving. I always brief the taxi before the plane is moving, but this time I let being in a hurry get the best of me. I noticed that the airport diagram didn’t show enough detail to see that the two islands were actually one, but one page later, in a map of the terminal and ramp area, it did show that important detail. Lastly, I should’ve been on better guard since I was operating at an unfamiliar airport. Actually there’s one more, too, that I kept to myself. I tend to lose ‘flight discipline’ somewhat when I get emotional, on the angry or happy side of the scale. I could do better in safeguarding against this.

‘Flight Discipline’ is an important term I favor in my job arena. When even the new FAA Administrator is lamenting a loss of professionalism in the regional AND major airline pilot ranks these days, encouraging pilots to have better flight discipline will be one of the keys to improving the airline safety record even further. I’d like to plug a great book I read by the same name, ‘Flight Discipline’ by Tony Kern, a veteran Air Force Pilot. He reviews military and airline accidents in which a lack of flight discipline directly contributed to the crashes occurring. Based on my experience as an airline pilot, former military pilots seem to have better flight discipline than their civilian cohorts. They have more of a mission mindset and a greater respect for the rules and SOP’s (standard operating procedures) than other pilots. This isn’t to say that every civilian pilot is a ‘cowboy’ either, by no means.

Traditionally, the public holds pilots in such high regard, sometimes I wonder why. Maybe it has to do with entrusting your life to complete strangers in a foreign, unknown, unfriendly sky. Not to malign my brothers and sisters in arms, but we are people too. On one hand, passengers seem to think that pilots are brave, courageous, have razor sharp reflexes and coordination, are safe and professional, and thusly, have the morals and ethics of saints. I’m sorry, it’s just not true. You can be a safe and professional pilot and still be completely human, with many personal failings. The opposite stereotype of pilots as greedy, lazy, drunk, egotistical male chauvinists and bigots who cheat on their wives or girlfriends is far from the mark as well. The reality is somewhere between; as it is in society in general, it depends on the individual pilot. Yes, airline pilots tend to have egos, but we’re not superheroes, we’re people like you and me. We’re just people, far from perfect people who have a love for flying, who have a blood and heart infection for being in the sky.


-SPW said...

I think you have hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph. (About a pilot as an individual). Or at least as the wife of a pilot I like to think so!
Good writing.

Craig said...

Thank you -SPW! And sorry for the delay in responding. Pilots are indeed people of all stripes.

One thing I wanted to touch on regarding Christians being perfect is that even though we are made perfect and sinless through Jesus' death for our sins and our acceptance of his sacrifice and work by our faith, our intent in life should be to mature spiritually 'in Christ'.

In a growing personal and spiritual relationship with Jesus, one will want to please and honor God with their lives, and that means pursuing perfection, or holiness and righteousness, in Bible terms. To illuminate, Paul wrote in Phillippians 3:12: "I don't mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ jesus first possessed me."