One of my favorite hobbies is flying. About twenty years ago I went to the schools and obtained my private pilot’s license. Besides the thrill of “leaving the bonds of Earth”, I have become especially fond of night flying.
There is something about all the lights and the stars which I find especially thrilling. Of course, I only decide to go up on clear nights, no weather threats. I must rely upon the basic navigational instruments used for so called VFR (Visual Flying Rules) license because I have not yet acquired my IFR license (Instrument Flight Rules).
The key distinction here is that I am not yet prepared nor equipped to rely totally on the instrument panel to navigate. That means there must be a high degree of visibility and correlation to landmark style navigation.
Well, having said that, I took off one night for a first time run to Lake Jackson. An old college friend had been encouraging me to join them for dinner. I departed my home base in Northwest Houston a little after 6:00 PM which meant it was already nightfall. The route of flight I had chosen was to take me south over Sugarland, then southeast towards Lake Jackson. Maps were clearly marked, conditions OK’d for VFR routing and off I went.
The leg to Sugarland was uneventful. I climbed to 2000 feet, still having all of West Houston in very clear sight. The roadways, landmarks etc. were easily discernable. I approached Sugarland and made my calls to the tower to announce my transition through their airspace. A strong headwind was causing plenty of heading correction to maintain my direction of flight.
As I made the turn southeasterly toward what was to be Lake Jackson, a leg estimated at 31 miles, about 19 minutes, I discovered, there were few if any lights on the horizon. A mist had started to develop in the air. Looking immediately in front and below, I estimated visibility had shrunk to about 4 miles; still technically suitable for VFR flight, but certainly less than I am excited about flying into.
As the lights of Houston started to fade, I truly felt I was flying into total darkness. Just a few scant images of light were on the horizon before me. The heading was hard to maintain because what had been a direct southerly headwind was now attacking from more of an angle.
Just minutes into this scene I began to feel a sense of panic about pressing onward. I had to admit that I was headed to an unfamiliar airport, in definitely unfamiliar surroundings with what now was deteriorating weather conditions. There would be no alternate airports in the vicinity, short of turning around for Sugarland. In a word “this was not good”.
Then something overtook my spirit. The hours of training and preparation began to resurface. Almost as a reflex as opposed to a forced response, I began to more closely check off the features of the landscape I could discern in the dark, often needing to rely on features almost immediately below me.
A cross-check on a VOR setting gave me a beacon, a radio beam to follow as a target for my destination. I reset the GPS (global positioning satellite) receiver for the destination and all began to fall into place. Clearly I was on course but just couldn’t rely on my immediate natural senses to assure me of it. I had to rely on what I knew to be true.
Minutes seemed like hours. The darkness only got more intense. Even more lights were now fading. Soon I began to see the outline of the town itself emerge from the dark chasm I was entering.
Once I was sure I was approaching Lake Jackson, the next challenge was to find the airport. The town was of no use if I could not safely land at the airport. As miles “to the destination” clicked off the GPS panel, I was in range to see the airport, but for some reason could not see it.
I rechecked the gauges. Everything checked out, but no airport was in sight. I was approaching fewer than 4 miles to the destination which should have given me ample view of the field from 2000 feet. But there was nothing but more darkness.
I was certain of my bearings and even though I could not see the destination, I began my descent from 2000 feet. I needed to drop to 1000 to be on line for a smooth landing. Just as I reached the approach altitude of 1000 feet, I saw the lights of runway 17 emerge. I was on dead center line for straight-in final approach. Radio calls were made and I began my landing. A few minutes later I taxied safely and securely to the hangar where my friend was waiting.
I was reminded of how much this resembles our walk with Jesus Christ. For those of us professing to be Christian, for some time now, we have read the book(s), we have heard the sermons, we have attended the workshops… we are well prepared.
Yet as moments of darkness envelope the journey we have chosen, how often do we find ourselves panicked? Thoughts of fear and doubt shroud our existence. We often think about turning around to some safety we believe is behind us.
Yet if we will only rely on the indicators, the knowledge and beliefs that have been instilled, we can arrive at a safe, new destination. In spite of doubt and information that can suggest we are lost, we can press on toward the goal. Darkness can be overcome.
Fear can be replaced with confidence. We can take measures to begin the final approach to the goal even though the goal is not even in sight. We can rest assured in the faith and knowledge we have of the One Whom is to be Lord.