Minutes before midnight on Dec. 29, 1979, Eastern Airlines flight 401, originating from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, with 163 passengers and 13 crew on board, crashed into the Everglades, just short of their destination, Miami International Airport. In total, 96 lives were lost due to a faulty light.
While on approach to land, the nose wheel “down-and-locked” indicator light failed to illuminate. A missed approach was executed, which included climbing to 2000 ft. over the Everglades. The crew re-engaged the autopilot and investigated.
During the commotion, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the captain, when turning to speak with the flight engineer, may have inadvertently disconnected the autopilot, resulting in a shallow descent. Given the moonless night and dark terrain below, it would have been near impossible to visually recognize the departure from the established altitude.
Allow me to pause. Do you believe what we say and how we say it matters? Proverbs 18:21 teaches that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” James likens the tongue to a small rudder which “makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go — “for, if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.” (James 3:2-3). It’s important for us to understand that even seemingly insignificant words carry this same power.
We could argue the first link broke in the chain of events leading to the disaster stems from a seemingly insignificant piece of hardware. This malfunctioning light interrupted a normal approach and diverted the crews’ attention — a large catastrophe caused by a little light bulb.
If you’re like me, the latest catastrophes around the world can be overwhelming. I understand the “call to love” more. But can my personal choice to do so really make any difference in the grand scheme of the world’s problems? Then, I am reminded of Eastern Airlines Flight 401. Little things can make a huge difference — for better … or for worse.
For instance, now, if the autopilot is bumped off, an audible alert sounds. Another modest improvement, which has saved countless lives, is the concept of “pilot-flying” and “pilot-not-flying.” In the event of a situation, as with Flight 401, a crew-member’s sole responsibility would have been to positively monitor the instruments, immediately noticing the break from altitude. It’s simple, yet powerful — like our words (and even our actions).
From this day forward, recognize the power you possess to share love with others. It may seem trite, but let someone into traffic ahead of you. Buy the lunch of the person behind you in the drive-through. Visit a nursing home or VA. Write a personal note to someone. Call your parents. When someone is walking your way on the sidewalk, make room for them to pass — or honk less in traffic.
Love is a verb with limitless opportunities to be expressed. And while governing authorities may serve as relief, it is the power of love, exhibited on the personal level — albeit even minuscule — which heals a relationship, a family, a neighborhood, a community, a city, a state, a nation, a world. Never underestimate the capacity of simple words … it’s the power of life and death.
C.J. Wetzler is the NextGen pastor at First Baptist Church of Deerfield Beach. Before transitioning into full-time ministry, CJ was a commercial airline captain and high school leadership and science teacher. For questions or comments he can be reached at email@example.com.