Friday, June 13, 2014

The Last Hour Of My Life

A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life. - Charles Darwin

Life isn't a matter of milestones, but of moments. - Rose Kennedy

Twice this week I have been asked to recount four airplane “events” I have survived in my many years of travel and after I shared the stories for the second time, something stood out that made me pause and reflect about how we spend the most valuable gift we have been blessed with – our time on this Earth.

Some years ago while returning from a business trip, I had an opportunity to experience some of the worst air turbulence in my 40+ years of travelling.  In the violent pitching and rolling that occurred, I suddenly felt a “bang” in the floor and for a moment I thought that we had popped a baggage compartment door and were spilling luggage all over the east coast.

The plane suddenly pitched up and after we had climbed above the turbulence, the pilot announced that he needed to speak to ops (flight operations) and that he would get back to us soon.  I thought “Ops?  That’s interesting.  That means we have a problem.”

For an hour we flew in a wide circle with no updates of any kind.  The pilot eventually came on the intercom and told us that we would be returning from whence we came and that we were to follow all instructions of the cabin staff.

We were taught the brace position required for emergency landings and then were left with our own thoughts for what could be the last hour of our lives.  A lady behind me was saying her Rosary, a few people were crying, some people were talking quietly and I, in typical fashion of always acting in a manner contrary to worrisome circumstances, was intent on finishing a book that I was rereading – The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

The lady sitting next to me asked me “How can you read a book at a time like this?”

My reply was basically along the lines of “I have two options, both completely out of my control.  I might hit the ground at 500 miles per hour, becoming a grease spot on the runway but feeling no pain as I am killed instantly.  If that happens, my insurance is paid up, my family will be taken care of and I will be remembered as the only person in my family to have been killed in a plane crash.  How cool is that?  My other option is that I will walk away from this totally unscathed and I will have an awesome story to tell.  So given that both options are out of my control and I know what all possible outcomes are, I have nothing else to do but read my book”.

With a mix of anger and incredulity, she told me I was crazy.

About an hour later, as I turned the last page of my book, an announcement came over the intercom that we were approaching our destination and that we were to start preparing for arrival by placing our personal effects, including shirt pocket contents, eye glasses and such in the seat pocket in front of us.

As the ground got closer, I quietly said my thank-you’s to everyone and no one in particular, asked for forgiveness for the mistakes I had made in my Life and when the call came for us to brace for impact, we all leaned forward and prepared to die.

Spoiler alert

After we had landed safely and the applause and yells from passengers had subsided, I turned to the lady sitting next to me and said “In the last hour of my Life, I finished a great book.  What did you do?”

She didn’t reply.

In a subsequent conversation with the pilot, I learned two things:

  • At the moment that the “bang” had occurred, we had experienced a structural integrity compromise (translation: something broke) and the airworthiness of the aircraft was unknown until we had safely touched down.
  • The pilot, who had been flying for more than 25 years, said that this event was in the top 3 scariest events of his Life.

When a pilot with that much experience and who isn’t bothered by things that bother passengers says this, that’s when you want to go back to the lavatory and throw up.

The Bottom Line

During this flight, I was given a warning by the flight crew that the last hour of my Life had potentially been identified and that it was now.

But in Life we don’t always get such warnings and in that realization, I wonder how we would live our personal, relational and professional lives if we believed that the next hour was to be our last, regardless of whether we were given a warning or not.

Most of us don’t live as if the next hour is our last.

I wonder what would happen to us individually and societally if we did.

What do you think?

Do you recognize the value of your time, especially given that you have a finite amount of it, once it is spent it cannot be reclaimed and you have no idea how much of it is remaining?

Are you sure?

Are your actions in congruence with your beliefs?

How do you know?

In service and servanthood.


PS – The Importance of Gratitude

All the passengers went back to the airline counter to rebook seats necessary to carry us to our original destination and I couldn’t help but notice the guys in front of me giving the lady at the counter a hard time about the impact of the delay on them, how airline staff didn’t know how to run an airline, etc.

When it was my turn, I expressed to the lady how grateful I was to be speaking to her and how I thought the airline’s maintenance program, training regimen and professionalism were the difference between me living and dying.

She thanked me, pointed to the guys that I had been observing and said “See those guys over there?  I have them on standby for tomorrow.  However, I’ve got an executive class seat for you on the next flight and here’s $75 “airport dollars” that you can spend anywhere in the airport for meals, souvenirs or anything else you need.”

Her actions remind me that kindness pays … especially when unexpected or when it seems most difficult to express.

Someone is waiting for your kindness in an unexpected way today.

What are you waiting for?

Addendum - February 9, 2017

I was reminded today that I have had five close calls (not four).  They include a cabin depressurization, a near mid-air collision on final, the structural integrity compromise noted in this post and two RPM governance failures on take-off.  In the latter, I've often considered them as one event because it occurred twice with the same aircraft on the same day.  Sound complicated?  On a flight some years ago, we experienced an RPM governance failure (which was explained to me later) on take-off that almost caused us to drop into the forest as we cleared the runway.  We made an emergency landing at an airport along the way, boarded a different aircraft and then proceeded to my original half-way point destination.  We waited for the aircraft that would take us to the final destination and when it arrived, I realized that I was seated in the same seat as on the original flight.  I knew this because I had noted when my journey began that someone had carved their name into the window shade and as I sat in my seat, I saw the name on the window shade again.  The airline in question had assumed that the aircraft issues had been addressed and had ferried the aircraft in to pick us up and take us to our final destination.  The assumption that the aircraft has been repaired turned out to be incorrect and we once again had an RPM governance device failure on take-off.  The resulting take-off, while completely successful with a dramatic acceleration, deceleration, acceleration (we were committed) finished with an equally interesting landing since the standard procedure for landing an aircraft with a failed RPM governance device is to land at full throttle.  It made for an interesting day.

For those who like to know technical stuff, the RPM governance device senses shaft RPM, and adjusts or controls the angle of the blades to vary the torque load on the engine. Thus as the aircraft speeds up (as in a dive) or slows (in climb) the RPM is held constant.  When this device fails, it is difficult to control the thrust of the engine (and thus speed of the aircraft) and so it is better to land at full throttle rather than risk diminishing the throttle and causing the engine to produce less power than desired.


  1. Ugh... having flown much more lately than ever before, this story makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
    Every time I fly, I tell myself:
    1. Planes are engineered to fly, and regardless of turbulence, as long as the engines are working it will stay in the air. Physics says so.
    2. The pilots are trained to land an ailing plane, and all-out crashes are incredibly rare.
    That's what I tell myself... It helps, even if it may or may not be 100% accurate.
    One time, landing in St. John's, at night, in deep fog, plus wind gusts (which I didn't think could coexist) I seriously questioned those theories :)

    1. Imagine if air travel was as safe and reliable as automobiles. ;-)

      Create a great day, Stephen!


  2. You were a "lucky" one, Harry, some don't get an hour to think about their lives, their life is over in a second. The sad part is this: Have you (third person) contemplated eternity? Where will you go. Read Matt 27:44, Mark 15:32, then read Luke 23:39-42, you have a choice. We never know when, but the issue becomes: Will you have enough time like Harry to make a decision? Or will your death come too quickly to change your current decision? Make a decision now.

    1. Thank you, my friend.

      "Make a decision",.... powerful words that define where we are going and how we are getting there.

      Create a Blessed day, Kevin.