“You’ve taken all the humanity out of the cockpit”
“He knows what we are made of, he remembers we are dust.” (Psalm 103.14)
A couple weeks ago I watched Sully, the movie depicting the ditching on January 15, 2009, of US Airways Flight 1592, piloted by Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, on the Hudson River, after both engines of his plane had been disabled by bird strikes. Sully’s handling of the situation saved all 156 souls on board, and he was immediately hailed a hero. Some, however, accused him of mishandling the situation and tried to hold him culpable for the loss of the plane, claiming he had enough altitude and power to make it back to the airport.
At the public hearing, the National Transportation and Safety Board announced that pilots flying simulators—programmed with all the settings of Sully’s plane at the time of the incident—had been able to safely return to LaGuardia, which seemed to sustain the charges against Sullenberger. Here’s what then ensued.
SULLY: “Can we get serious? ...We’ve all heard about the computer simulations ...but I can’t quite believe you still have not taken into account the human factor.”
NTSB COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: “Human pilots and simulation showed you could make it back to the airport.”
SULLY: “No they didn’t. These pilots were not behaving like human beings, like people who are experiencing this for the first time...No one warned us. No one said you are going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history...No one has ever trained for an incident like that; no one. ...You’ve allowed no time for analysis or decision making. In these simulations, you’ve taken all of the humanity out of the cockpit.”
It turned out that even though the simulator pilots knew beforehand what was going to happen and what to do when it happened, it still took seventeen tries before they could get the plane back to LaGuardia. When the human factor was added to the test, and thirty seconds were allowed to elapse between the time of the bird strike and the turn for the airport, the simulator plane crashed short of the runway every time.
Am I off-base in guessing there have been times when all of us have taken the humanity out of the cockpit and judged a situation on the basis of ideal conditions apart from the human factor? How many preachers, for instance, have shamed struggling saints for their anxiety and worry, accusing them of little faith, and backing it up by quoting Matthew 6.25ff or Philippians 4.6’s, “be anxious for nothing”? When admonishing the anxious, how often has the human factor been forgotten or ignored? “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ. For the beginning of the Passion—the first move, so to speak—is in Gethsemane” (C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, ch. 8). Lewis then notes that in Gethsemane, when “the torments of hope” were unleashed on Christ, He was anxious. Not only that, but in Gethsemane, Christ asked for the very thing He said—just a few days before—He wouldn’t ask for (Jn. 12.27/Mk. 14.35). Eliminate the human factor, and you’ll never understand Gethsemane; or why Paul turned to Ananias, rather than turning the other cheek, to say, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (Acts 23.3); or a thousand other reactions in Scripture and in life.
Before criticizing another for mishandling a situation, remember the human factor. Doing so might make us more patient and kind toward our brother in his struggle; it might even cause us to remember times when we’ve asked for mercy, because, after all, we’re only human.