Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gut Check

He is risen, He is risen indeed! I say it to others and others say it to me. In my past life, in the next few days and weeks after Easter I typically would slowly revert to living like I did before, only feeling the literal meaning of Jesus’ resurrection every so often, instead of every glorious day. I wish we could celebrate our Lord’s resurrection every week. Wait a minute, we do: Sunday is the day of the Lord, the risen Lord. Christians (except for Seventh Day Adventists) observe the Sabbath day as Sunday instead of Saturday, honoring the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday morning, after the Jewish Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday night). Realizing that I’m still human helps me to understand how rediscovering ‘the joy of my salvation’ keeps it fresh in my heart.

Luke, a gentile (non-Jewish person) and physician, and close friend of the apostle Paul, wrote the gospel of Luke and the sequel to it, the book of Acts, during A.D. 61-64. Acts picks up where the gospels left off, and documents the rapid growth and events of the early Christian church after the resurrected Jesus Christ, in bodily and glorified form, appeared to many disciples and followers.

What occurs in the book of Acts is exactly what one would expect from resurrection witnesses empowered with a conviction of the mind and the presence of the Holy Spirit (which Jesus promised them). The apostles act boldly, teaching, preaching, performing miracles, and endure much persecution, suffering, and dying for God‘s glory. The church grows rapidly as a result.

Here are just a few events in the book of Acts: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost; the gospel is preached to the Jews and the Gentiles; the church grows rapidly in spite of resistance and persecution of it; Saul (a zealous Jew who persecutes Christians) is met by a blinding Jesus on the road to Damascus, believes, and is renamed Paul; and Paul and others go on missionary journeys as far as Greece and Rome.

Acts is certainly a book of action, and a perfect sequel to the gospels. It’s an historical ‘gut-check’: it’s stories and history are evidence for an affirmative answer to the question ‘did Jesus really rise from the dead?‘ Instinctively, it makes sense. The followers of ‘The Way’ wouldn’t have been willing to endure the persecution and suffering they did if the resurrection wasn’t true.

Christians pronounce that Jesus is risen: we say it and believe it, but do we keep it hidden? Do we act like we really believe it so others can see our faith? The stories in Acts can be used as evidence of the new church’s knowledge of the truth, resulting in the bolstering of one’s faith in Jesus.

I’m reading through Acts this month, and am behind the reading schedule in my Bible. So often it seems things don’t happen on my schedule, they happen on God’s schedule. But that’s the way it should be. After a week of good vacation and getting the taxes done, I’m having an enjoyable three day trip in sunny weather. It’s the third morning in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and I’ll be flying OAJ-CLT-LEX-CLT-DCA today (Charlotte, Lexington, and Washington).

We had an overnight in Lexington the first night of this trip. I liked it there, it was lushly green, with absolutely beautiful tree lined, hilly horse farms and meadows, complete with painted wooden fences. The folks are friendly there with true southern hospitality, and I had a good jog over to the nearby ‘UK’ (University of Kentucky).

However, in spite of the niceness of Lexington, I can’t go there without thinking of the tragedy of Comair 5191, on August 27, 2006.

The Delta Connection flight to Atlanta attempted to takeoff on 3,500 foot long runway 26, instead of 7,003 foot long runway 22. Forty-nine out of fifty souls on board died after the jet struck a fence and trees while struggling to get airborne beyond the short runway.

They attempted takeoff on the wrong runway because the Captain steered the jet onto it by mistake. The taxiway route to the runway offered the crew an opportunity to take a left turn at two locations. The first left turn was onto the ill fated short runway, the second left turn, a little further down the taxiway, was onto the correct runway.

It can be argued that there were many contributing factors for this accident. The control tower controller didn’t watch their takeoff attempt, information about the airport wasn’t supplied appropriately to the crew, the layout of the taxiways and runways could potentially trick pilots into using the wrong runway, the Captain didn’t get good rest the night before, and the crew engaged in non-essential conversation while the plane was taxiing. However, in spite of all these factors, in the end it was the pilots responsibility to make sure they were taking off on a runway that had adequate length.

What prevented either pilot from noticing they were on the wrong runway? Apparently, they didn’t check that the magnetic direction the plane indicated while on the runway was the same direction of their intended runway for takeoff (260 degrees instead of 220 degrees).  More fundamentally and less technically, apparently they didn't do a gut check: they didn’t ask internally or to the other pilot ‘does this feel right, is everything OK?’  Professionals in all fields of work perform ‘gut-checks’ routinely. ’ Experience is the best teacher’, and it teaches them to safeguard their work just by being aware and sensing when something is amiss and out of the ordinary. Gut checks are vitally important when operating at less than full mental capacity, as when fatigued, distracted, or both.

The paradox is that at the very time when it’s most critical to maintain a good situational awareness, when fatigued or distracted, is the very time when it’s most difficult to do so. I know this from experience.

The two most humbling mistakes (and they were very humbling) I’ve made in my airline career have occurred while I was taxiing the plane on the ground, and I believe they happened in part because I didn’t perform a gut-check. I wasn’t able to because I was tired and fatigued, rushed, and too distracted in non-essential (to the flight) conversation with my Co-Pilot on the ground. In the industry this is known as ‘violating sterile cockpit’, and it is big on the FAA’s hit list. Airline pilots are to observe a sterile cockpit - no conversation that doesn’t pertain to the safe operation of the flight - anytime the plane is moving on the ground or anytime below 10,000 feet in flight.

Applying this line of thought to this accident, I believe that short term fatigue and distraction from violating sterile cockpit helped to prevent this crew from taxiing to the correct runway, and to prevent them from aborting the takeoff before it was too late.

I examined the cockpit voice recording transcript briefly, and the crew (mainly the First Officer) did ‘violate sterile cockpit‘, but not to a gross extent, in my opinion. However, lack of focus is possible when distracted by emotion or thought about a non-essential conversation, even if its a short one. I have seen this occur to me numerous times, and I believe it is one of the main considerations for the sterile cockpit rule. What I mean is that’s how I think the mechanism works: while a mistake can occur during the moment sterile cockpit is violated, it can also occur afterwards. Non-essential conversation can induce a type of lingering distraction to pilots during a period of flight operations that is critical to the safety of flight.

I mentioned fatigue as another characteristic which reduces the ability to maintain situational awareness. Unfortunately, the Captain of the accident flight didn’t get good rest the night before, due to his wife and two infants spending the night in the hotel with him. He complained on the CVR about his lack of sleep to his Co-Pilot. I was fatigued when I had both of my problems aforementioned on the ground, the first after a short night of sleep after commuting in to my base for an early showtime, and the second after a long duty day full of schedule changes. When fatigued, one simply doesn’t have the ability to perform to the same level as when not. Slowing down the pace at which one completes tasks and adhering to SOP’s (standard operating procedures) are two ways to counteract the effects of fatigue.

This accident, like other airline accidents and incidents recently, exhibit symptoms of a lack of flight discipline, which stems from a lack of professionalism. Frankly, others I've talked to are like me, we never expected Comair, a regional airline whose pilots always had a reputation for being true professionals, to have an accident like this.  If Comair could have this accident, any regional airline could.  This problem of a lack of professionalism is endemic in our industry, and it seems to be difficult to get across to all pilots the insidiousness of it. The negative reaction seen at times involves an impulse to blame airline management for poor schedules and reduced pay, instead of examining their own personal standards of professionalism and flight discipline. Poor schedules and reduced pay are problems the pilot unions continue to battle to win improvements on, but these issues are no excuse to absolve pilots from their duty and responsibility to safely transport the flying public with the highest standards possible.

OK, short rant over. In review, fatigue and distraction both reduce pilots ability to ‘trap errors’ and perform a gut-check. Performing a gut-check is good thing to do in aviation or any industry:

- be in tune to your instincts, trust them, and follow them

- when fatigued and/or distracted, the ability to perform a gut-check is diminished

- when fatigued and distracted is the time when SOP’s are the most important to follow to the letter. Adhering to a checklist, callout, or procedure when fatigued and/or distracted makes it more likely than otherwise that a critical item won’t be missed.

I got a little academic, but this is the way I see it, and I make no apologies for it. The opportunity to learn and lessen the likelihood of more tragedy and loss of life makes it worthwhile. Thanks again for reading my blog.

PS: In case you're curious, I continue to battle against fatigue and distraction I encounter on the flight deck.  After I've made mistakes of the type which in the past I would point to others and say quietly "I could never do something that silly", I operate more conservatively and with better flight discipline than I ever have as a pilot.  I still learn new things about the airplane and how to better perform my job, and I hope I always will.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday sense

It’s day five of flying for me, tonight will be night number six away from home. I’m spending the day in a Hampton Inn in Greenville, SC, where everything is green, or greening up in the early spring. Tonight I’ll fly from GSP to Charlotte, only about a twenty minute flight maximum, then deadhead back to DC for the night. I miss my wife and girls, and will be home tomorrow afternoon, for a week of vacation and four days extra scheduled off, away from the skies. So, two days before our Easter holiday, it’s a good Friday, in fact it is THE Good Friday, and I’ll be writing about that subject in a paragraph or two.

The first couple of days of this trip we endured a lot of turbulence in the clouds, immersed and enveloped ‘inside the lampshade‘, in white and gray. Climbing and descending to find a smoother altitude for our ‘peeps’ didn’t help much, so we usually just slowed down the plane and endured it. My Co-Pilots and I had to fight gusty crosswinds on takeoff and landing. We airline pilots generally like the challenge of a crosswind, passengers generally don’t. Not seeing the blue sky or sun for entire flights is strange at times. It still intrigues me to navigate using only our instruments on the flight display screens in front of us, then pop out of ragged clouds and mist with the runway right in front of us, canted at an angle, due to our ‘crab angle’ into the wind.

On the second day we were flying north over western New York, destination Toronto, Ontario, Canada, when we seemed to reach the end of the endless clouds. It started clearing over Buffalo, New York, as center had us descend to 10,000 feet. I got out my camera because I knew Niagara Falls was coming up, and it looked as if we would get a chance to photograph it. This is from two miles above the ground with a zoomed lens, but it’s still very impressive.

I think it’s only fitting that I quote Jesus’ from John 7:37 (ESV) here: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Wow, what a river of living water, indeed. I will see it up close in person, someday.

Below is a picture of the river and lakes of the Niagara Falls region, this was taken while we were headed south, from Toronto back to Philadelphia. In the foreground is Lake Ontario, in the background is Lake Erie. That little puff of white is the mist rising from the Canadian, Horseshoe falls side. The river is the Niagara river, and it flows from south to north, background to foreground, from Lake Erie towards Lake Ontario. Unless you’re geography limited, like I was about this area until a few years ago, it doesn’t make sense without an explanation. Here's a google map of the same area.  It’s still tricky for me to make sense of it, of a river that flows from south to north, and not only that but a humongous waterfall over seemingly flat country. But with a little knowledge and explanation, it does make sense. Rivers all over the earth flow from a higher elevation to a lower elevation.

It can be hard to make sense of Jesus’ sacrifice of his life on the cross too. With a little knowledge and explanation it begins to make sense too. God loves you! God loves us, every one of us, and He wants to have relationship with us, now and for eternity. Our sin (which is turning away from God by our thoughts, words, actions, and deeds) separates us from God, because God is Holy and perfect, and cannot and will not tolerate sin in his presence. As a matter of fact, God will destroy whatever is sinful in his pure presence. But God made a way, from the beginning, to ‘fix’ our imperfectedness and restore our relationship with him. Jesus. He said in John 16:13 “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Many skeptics of Christianity accept that a man named Jesus Christ of Nazareth was crucified on a cross, but they draw the line there. But without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, his crucifixion doesn’t make sense at all. The resurrection is absolutely essential to Christianity. But don’t just take my word for it, feel free to check out these three links, by others much smarter than me about the subject: No Christianity with the Resurrection, Christianity is Resurrection, and Resurrection essential to Christianity.

Without Jesus rising from the dead:

-His death on the cross was in vain, and unable to defeat sin; in other words the pain and suffering of crucifixion, ‘bearing the guilt for the sins of many’, was unable to overcome death.

-He was just a man, and not God.

-He was a liar, and so were his disciples. All the times in four gospels where Jesus promised that ‘whosoever believes in me shall not die, but have everlasting life’ make him and the gospel writers out to be liars.

-God has permitted all true Christians out to be liars as well. I can’t, don’t, and won’t believe that the nature of God is like that, the Bible says otherwise in plenty of places.

The proof that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice was sufficient enough to make us sinners right with God (“by grace through faith” - Ephesians 2:8) is in the fact of his resurrection itself, and gives all believers confidence that at some point after we die in this life we will have resurrected bodies and eternal life, just as our Savior promised multiple times in the gospels, and as the New Testament authors espoused on.

Perhaps the most memorable New Testament passage regarding the essentialness of the doctrine of the resurrection was by the apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 15:12-19 (Amplified): "12But now if Christ (the Messiah) is preached as raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not risen; 14And if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is in vain [it amounts to nothing] and your faith is devoid of truth and is fruitless (without effect, empty, imaginary, and unfounded).  15We are even discovered to be misrepresenting God, for we testified of Him that He raised Christ, Whom He did not raise in case it is true that the dead are not raised.  16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised; 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is mere delusion [futile, fruitless], and you are still in your sins [under the control and penalty of sin]; 18And further, those who have died in [spiritual fellowship and union with] Christ have perished (are lost)! 19If we who are [abiding] in Christ have hope only in this life and that is all, then we are of all people most miserable and to be pitied."
Wow, what a statement and declaration of truth by Paul.  If we have no resurrection from the dead then Jesus doesn't either, and we are to be pitied by others, and we are, because they don't believe it (the resurrection).  But we brothers and sisters in Christ know otherwise, for we have experienced the prescence of Christ in our lives, and the peace, joy, fellowship, love, and purpose that comes along with it. 
Hallelujah, for He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Happy Easter everyone, whether you observe and believe the resurrection of our Lord or not.  Thanks for reading my blog.