Sunday 13th September – Trinity 14

“How often should I forgive?”

On 28th December 1978 United Airlines flight 173 took off from JFK International airport New York heading for Portland, Oregan. The majority of the 181 passengers were people returning home after Christmas. The sky was clear and flying conditions were close to perfect. At the controls was Captain Malburn McBroom, 52 years old, a veteran of the Second World War who had been with United Airlines for 27 years.

Shortly after 5.00pm the plane was given clearance to begin its descent into Portland. Captain McBroom pulled the lever to lower the undercarriage. At which point there was a thud and a vibration ran through the aircraft. One of the lights indicating that the undercarriage has locked down failed to illuminate.

The two pilots checked everything, it looked like the undercarriage had lowered but they couldn’t see it to make sure. Why was that light still out?

The Flight Engineer, Forrest Mendenhall, went to check the wing tips. On a DC8 there are two bolts which pop up when the undercarriage is down. Both bolts were visible.

But the Captain was worried about that light that was out. He asked air traffic control to give them a holding circle whilst he tried to figure it out.

As the plane circled over Portland McBroom struggled to understand the problem. What he didn’t realise was that time was passing quicker than he realised. We have all experienced this. Sometimes time drags, at other time it flies. Time is subjective. When you’re focussed on something very intently you lose track of time.

When it took off the DC8 was carrying 46,700 pounds of fuel, but the engines consume that fuel at a rate of 201 pounds a minute. As he struggled to understand the problem with the undercarriage Captain McBroom didn’t register repeated warnings from the Flight Engineer that fuel was getting low.

Shortly after 6.00pm the engines flamed out with Flight 173 still circling over Portland 8 miles away from the airport. There was nowhere to land. The aircraft crashed into the city. Miraculously Captain McBroom kept control of the plane searching for the least worst place to land. They came down in a wooded suburb, obliterating two houses.

Amazingly there were no fatalities on the ground but eight passengers and two crew members deid, one of whom was Flight Engineer Forrest Mendenhall.

The investigation soon realised that Mendenhall had spotted the dangerously low fuel level and had warned the pilots, repeatedly. The problem was that the pilots were struggling with a problem and had lost track of time. They simply didn’t realise they had been circling for over an hour.

But there was another problem as well. In 1978 the hierarchy on a flight deck was top down. The Captain had total control and authority. A Flight Engineer might advise but he couldn’t tell the Captain what to do. There was an institutional structure that prevented junior member of the crew from overruling a senior member.

Captain McBroom had not lost focus, the problem was that he was too focussed, he was working on a problem with such determination that he lost awareness of other factors – the shortage of fuel being a critical issue. As it turned out the undercarriage was down and locked into place.

When the report into the crash was published in June 1979 it was a landmark in aviation. From now on all crew on an aircraft would be trained to intervene when they perceived a problem. Junior members of a crew could challenge a senior officer, senior officers were trained to delegate problem solving so they didn’t lose track of the wider perspective, and of time.

There were fundamental changes across the whole industry as result of United Airline flight 173 – one of the most significant was to change the culture of aviation so that mistakes were recognised so that problems could be solved.

A pilot who makes a mistake is trained to acknowledge that mistake and publish it – so that others can learn and avoid doing the same. That culture was proved to work on 15 January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York and at 3,000 feet hit a flock of geese. The crew found themselves in a 70 tonne Airbus A320 over a major city with no engines. At 3.29pm the pilot made the decision to land in the Hudson river.

The investigation later listened to the voice recordings in the cockpit as the crew worked together to figure what to do. Jobs were shared. Decisions were checked. In the last few seconds before impact the pilots were talking calmly. The Captain asked his First Officer – “Got any ideas?”

“Actually no,” was the reply. An industry that had acknowledged past mistakes had created a culture of trust and respect which makes aviation the safest way to travel.

Peter asked a hard but important question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven time?” And Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Forgiveness is not just about how we handle the past, it is primarily about how we learn to handle the future. Where there is no forgiveness mistakes will keep happening. People will be defensive. Blame will be attributed. This is a destructive spiral. To break that spiral is critical to making life better. Forgiveness is a spiritual task, and it has immense practical outcomes.

The airlines industry is one of the safest in the world because it has recognised that people need to be forgiven if we are all to live more safely. Mistakes will happen, if we blame and condemn then we become locked into repetition. God chooses to offer us life, and life in all its fullness. The ability to forgive, the willingness to forgive, are essential to unlocking that better reality.

Peter, of course, of all people, would come to know the power of being forgiven.

O Lord Jesus Christ, look upon us with those eyes of your, the eyes with which you looked upon Peter in the hall of judgement, and again by the lakeside, that with Peter we may repent, and by your great love be forgiven and restored; for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

Lancelot Andrewes.

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