“Both (pilots said) there was a distraction in the cockpit” reported Alan Levin in a USA Today article (Oct. 27, 2009). What was the distraction? We all have been waiting for a conclusive answer since the story broke a few days ago. Most Americans who fly regularly have been interested in the story for, well, let’s say for reasons related to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. We still freeze when we hear about plane crashes killing hundreds of human beings.
Learning that repeated calls from controllers to the cockpit of an Airbus A320 operated by a reputable airline, flying at 37,000 feet and moving at 450 miles per hour tends to grab your attention. It also leaves you feeling very vulnerable. Now, at least in this case, we know the truth. What is it? Well, the answer doesn’t exactly put us at ease; and we kind of figured that it would be that way. Planes just don’t keep flying past Minneapolis when they are supposed to land there. Pilots don’t just ignore radio contact from controllers. Usually we get a joke or two from the co-pilot or a captain’s update (I always picture the captain looking like Jimmy Stewart who flew B-17s over Europe in World War II and I am comforted; it is problematic on some level, but this self-medication works).
Here is the truth, finally. According to the story, “Distraction Led Pilots to Fly Too Far,” the answer is embedded in the title: The whole thing was about distraction. The distraction led the NTSB authorities to describe the situation by saying “there was a concentrated period of discussion when they did not monitor the airplane or calls from (controllers).” I hate it when that happens on giant tubes of steel and electrical wires hurling through the sky at 37,000 feet, don’t you?
Well, here is the scoop: This was a long flight from San Diego to Minneapolis. There was an argument between the pilot and the co-pilot. If you want to look deeper, there was/is a corporate merger providing an intriguing background for the whole near-catastrophic affair. Then — and this is the real culprit that came out of the pilots’ confession and this article — there was this really nifty, new computer program that caused them to become “engrossed” in their laptop screens. We expect that sort of behavior from 13-year-old boys with video games, but not from professionals with a combined 31,000 hours of flying time.
Thus, it was only when a flight attendant called on the intercom that these experienced professionals realized they had missed their destination and were headed for, well, maybe a really cool view of Mount Rushmore.
Due to other problems with the black box, we don’t have the reaction of the pilots to the flight attendant’s question at that point. We can imagine what they said.
Neil Postman’s work is helpful to us at this point. In Technopoly and in Amusing Ourselves to Death, the late, famous author and professor from NYU prophetically warned that we are perilously distracted by the technology that always comes at a Faustian price. The issue goes even deeper than the distractions of a new computer program. The truth is that even when we punish little boys and seasoned airline pilots for spending too much time on their computer programs and not paying attention, we still have this problem of human beings getting distracted. Theologically, this is a result of the fall. That is the epic but very real rebellion of mankind as taught in Genesis (and in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and is, in fact, the second point of a Christian worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption) in which all creation is subject to a deep, humanly incurable condition that mars the original product.
We are sinners. That is the problem. Sinners, among other things, get distracted. You see, even when the matter at hand, the lives of hundreds of people, demands our utmost attention, training, experience and dedication, we can just look away. We fiddle with our iPhones as our automobiles move at high speeds among others at high speeds who are also fiddling with their iPhones. Of course, one mistake, one look away, one distraction and you end up on the front page of newspapers all over the world. Or, you end up with a broken home, a lost career, an eternal destiny unsettled, a rejection of the God who made you, whose creation speaks of His presence, and whose law is written on your heart.
You get distracted. You miss His Gospel. You overshoot your destination. You fly too high, too long and disregard every voice that comes at you. Other things have your attention. The truth is, whether we are flying planes, running seminaries, leading a congregation, arguing cases in court, raising a family, being a friend or a son or a daughter, we all can get distracted. We get distracted by the most inane things, such as computer programs, other women, pornography, new boats, buying houses that we can’t afford, new religions that promise everything, sweet-talking spiritual gurus who tell us to go meditate in sweat houses in Arizona until we die.
The answer is not saying, “Oh, now I will focus on my job! I will focus on my family!” The idea is to listen to the voice. The flight attendant who asks, “By the way, where are we?” comes to us in all sorts of ways.
Thank God she asked the question. Thank God the Word of God comes to us in all sorts of voices, through pastors, Sunday School teachers, tracts left in public places, books given at Christmas, and sometimes through a child who asks, “Dad, is there a God? Why are we here? Where are we going?” It is in listening to the voice of God speaking through His Word, the Bible, attested to by the voice of the Holy Spirit. For we are all hurtling through time and space, flying high, with so much at stake. We all can get distracted. Thank God there is a divine interruption that has now come, if only we will hear:
“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him (