GOD’S PROTECTION IN TRAVEL, 1973

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Ralph Harvey

It was June, 1973, and time for a furlough. Normally, we would look for the cheapest charter flight, but we had become friends with the Austrian director of Lufthansa, who was a fine Christian and member of a Baptist church in Vienna. When he asked us why we didn't fly with a "good airline," we said we couldn't afford it. He then explained that the few dollars saved could not compensate for the inconveniences incurred: late arrivals, having to leave or arrive at unearthly hours, limited baggage allowances and poor service. Charter planes cut costs everywhere they can, packing more seats into the same space, purchasing aging planes from airlines like Lufthansa and hiring cheap personnel to service and fly them. He finally convinced us by offering to get us tickets at rock-bottom rates.

The pastor of a church in a neighboring town heard that we were flying to America and contacted us. "We want to visit relatives in Canada. Could you get us tickets when you get yours?" Our friend was happy to cooperate, and we ordered tickets for nine persons to Kennedy Airport, New York.

We would be flying in a 747 Jumbo Jet, and our children just couldn't wait for the trip to America! Soon after receiving the tickets, we bought them a toy die-cast 747 Jumbo Jet that even had Lufthansa painted on the side. Within hours, one set of wheels had broken off the toy airplane. As we tried to dry the tears of our six-year-old, he muttered, "I hate Jumbo Jets when their wheels break off!" We assured him that such things don't happen to real Lufthansa jumbo jets.

The day of our flight finally arrived. Friends in Salzburg had agreed to take us to the Munich Airport, but about halfway there, we found ourselves in a gigantic traffic jam. Nothing was moving, and news soon filtered through that a truck had jackknifed and spilled its cargo across the entire Autobahn. There was nothing we could do but sit, wait, and pray. We prayed, "Lord, if you want us on that plane, you can help us!" By the time cars began to move, it was already past departure time and it took another hour to get to the terminal. We recalled our friend from Vienna telling us, “Lufthansa is never late!”

We worked our way through throngs of tourists to the check-in counter and asked if there was any possibility that our tickets would be honored for a later flight. Imagine our surprise when the girl at the desk informed us that our plane was still standing on the runway! She explained that the air controllers had called a strike, and no planes were allowed to land or take off. They had no sooner checked our baggage when the announcement was made that the strike had been settled and planes were cleared for takeoff. Right there in the airport, we bowed our heads with our friends and thanked the Lord for answering our prayers.

Once in the air, the friendly voice of our pilot greeted his passengers in German and English, apologizing for the delay. He then explained that we would be making an unscheduled stop in Cologne to pick up passengers who had been stranded due to the same strike. He went on to explain that winds across the Atlantic were favorable, and we should be able to make up some of the lost time. The stopover in Cologne was very brief, and we were soon speeding down the runway again. Moments before our fully-loaded plane lifted off, we heard a loud bang, and a stewardess sitting near us unbuckled her seat belt and ran toward the front of the plane. We gained altitude rapidly, and after a few minutes, we heard the pilot's voice once again. He explained that there had been a "technical problem" during take-off. He was sorry to announce, that there would be another delay; we had to land in Frankfurt for repairs.

Verna and I began to pray. We soon saw the city of Frankfurt below us and our plane began to circle as though preparing for a landing. Everyone around us looked nervous, wondering what kind of a technical problem had occurred. Then the pilot spoke again, with a calm and almost too reassuring tone of voice. "I have good news to report," he began. "We have gotten clearance to fly on to New York after all." There was a pause, and then he continued, "It appears that we lost a wheel during take-off from Cologne. I explained to the ground personnel that if there should be any trouble landing, it wouldn't make a difference whether we are in Frankfurt or New York. Besides, we would have to jettison our fuel in order to land in Frankfurt." He then wished us a good flight.

I looked down at our six-year-old, clutching his toy 747 with the broken wheels! The children had apparently failed to comprehend what the pilot was saying. We looked around and could see panic written on many faces. We bowed our heads and prayed, leaving ourselves in God's hands. Suddenly, I was filled with a feeling of deep peace. It occurred to me that we had from the very beginning prayed about this flight. It would have been an easy matter for the Lord to allow us to miss the plane. There was the accident, and then the strike and answered prayers. Certainly there was a purpose in our being on board this particular flight! I shared these thoughts with Verna. When the seat-belt lights were turned off, I walked back to our friend with his family and shared the same thoughts with them. They too had received peace from the Lord and had already had an opportunity to share Christ and pray with someone.

We had opportunity to witness to passengers around us. A couple from the Midwest, who had been visiting their daughter and her military husband, were seated just behind us. They confessed to be Christians, but that they had strayed from the Lord. Before we landed, they rededicated their lives to Christ. Once Verna had to visit the rest room, and another passenger stopped her in the aisle and asked if she was a Christian. There were more of God's children on board!

The flight across the Atlantic was uneventful, but everyone seemed quite aware that our landing in New York could bring disaster. It was interesting to note how unbelievers reacted in the face of possible death: alcoholic beverages were offered free of charge and many drank heavily. Others tried to sleep or distract themselves in some way. Some passengers were smoking in the no smoking zone, but no one complained. As we descended for the landing, the crew took their positions by the emergency exits. There was no need for the pilot to comment on the situation. As the huge plane approached the runway at JFK, we beheld a scary sight below. Everywhere were the flashing red and blue lights of emergency vehicles. The ground came nearer and nearer. We could hear the pilot lowering the landing wheels -- or what was left of them.

The landing was the softest we have ever experienced. We never knew when the plane touched the ground. At first, there was a deathly silence on board, but as the plane began to roll down the runway with no signs of problems, the passengers released their pent-up emotions with long and loud applause. The danger was not yet past however. The pilot could not apply the brakes and we rolled for what seemed an eternity before the plane came to a stop. Firemen, mechanics and special inspectors converged upon the plane to check it thoroughly before we were allowed to taxi into the terminal. As we left the plane, the captain greeted each passenger personally. We thanked him for his masterful job, but he responded by saying: "It was a computer landing. I had nothing to do with it." We said in German that we were praying and he responded, "This is the first time I have landed at JFK when there was absolutely no wind!"

We had to walk from the plane to a bus and could see clearly what had happened. One entire outer tandem with four wheels had broken off. Probably because it would have put the plane off balance, the pilot couldn’t lower the wheels under either wing. Eight wheels under the wings of our 747 Jumbo were not useable and we landed on the two tandems under the belly plus a pair of nose wheels!

About 40 friends of the church and relatives were waiting in the airport to greet us. They had been waiting quite some time due to the delays and were very relieved to see us coming through the gate with three little kids and baggage in tow. There was much embracing and my parents were especially eager to get their arms around their three grandchildren, one of which they had never seen. My brother Bob had just been released from military service in Vietnam. He said, "Some plane must have been having trouble out there. I never saw so many emergency vehicles in all my life! I was a little concerned that it might be your plane."

Ralph V Harvey, 1973

If you haven't done so already, click here to read Part I from 1968