On December 4, 1965 Captain Charles White was flying an Eastern Air Lines Lockheed Super Constellation from Boston to Newark International Airport. At the same time, Captain Thomas Carroll was flying his TWA Boeing 707 from San Francisco to Kennedy International Airport. Both aircraft had passed a thorough inspection within the past year, and the pilots and crew had recently passed their annual physical exams. Both pilots were instrument-rated and both aircraft had up-to-date for IFR flight.
IFR is short for Instrument Flight Regulations, and VFR is Visual Flight Regulations. VFR rated planes and pilots can fly only when and where they can physically see where they are taking off, flying, and landing. IFR rating is for flying when visibility is poor. (That is a very poor over-simplification. Read up on it for a longer, fuller explanation.)
As they approached Carmel, New York, the Constellation was flying at 10,000 feet altitude in-and-out of an inclined cloud bank while the 707 was above the clouds at 11,000 feet. But they collided over Carmel. What caused the mid-air collision? Quoting from one of the reports:
As the Constellation emerged from a cloud puff, First Officer Roger I. Holt Jr. saw the Boeing in his right side window at the 2 o’clock position. The aircraft appeared to be converging rapidly at the same altitude. Holt shouted, “Look out,” placed his hands on the control wheel, and made a rapid application of up elevator simultaneously with Captain White, causing crew members and passengers to be forced down into their seats.
The pilots of the Constellation reacted to an optical illusion. Captain White and Co-pilot Holt, using the inclined cloud bank as their horizon, forgot that the cloud formation was not level with the ground, and it only appeared that the two planes were at the same altitude. Thus, as they climbed steeply to avoid the 707 which was 1,000 feet higher, they actually ascended into the flight path of the 707. And with both planes converging at a speed of over 350 mph, Captain Carroll in the 707 did not have time to avoid a collision.
When the 707’s wing struck the vertical stabilizer (tail) of the Constellation, the 707 lost twenty-five feet of its wing (broken off at the outer engine), and immediately plunged into a steep dive. Regaining control, Captain Thomas was unaware of the extent of the damage and safely flew the sturdy Boeing 707 to the JFK airport and made an emergency landing. There were no fatalities on the 707.
Losing its vertical stabilizer, the Constellation briefly continued gaining altitude but quickly became unstable. Captain White, skillfully manipulating engine thrust, regained control of the plane to some degree. Not having the luxury of choosing airports, he had to put the plane down right away. Expertly using engine thrust to guide the plane, he landed the plane in a field near Danbury, Connecticut, and the captain immediately began helping passengers to safety.
Captain White re-entered the burning wreckage one more time, trying to rescue the last passenger who was unconscious. His last comment as he reentered the burning plane was, “No one gets left behind!” Firemen later discovered the bodies of both men who had died of smoke inhalation. Two other passengers died later at a hospital.
The question that plagued the reporters was, “Since Captain White was safely a fifth of a mile below Captain Thomas, why did he climb into the flight path of the Boeing plane?” The answer: he subconsciously reverted from IFR mentality to VFR thinking. His instruments revealed that he was safe, but he was tricked by and reacted to an optical illusion.
Do you know that this same type error is committed by humans in every walk of life every day? God has given us “flight instruments” in the form of the Bible, and assistance from our “control tower” in the form of the Holy Spirit. Our Spiritual IFR is called Faith, but we are often deceived by our VFR which is human reasoning.
Romans 2:13b-15a says, “Those who obey the law will be declared right in God’s sight. Even when Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them….” That’s why verse 20 informs us that no one has an excuse for not living according to God’s law.
Rejecting faith in God causes us to do what Captain White did: fly directly into the path of danger and potential death. So check your documentation – the Bible. Choose the correct heading – Jesus Christ. Cooperate with your instruments – the Holy Spirit. And live forever with the Lord.