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Safer skies

A pilot and his wife talk about the challenges of air travel.

From the August 19, 2002 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel

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As Captain Bill Foster approached his assigned runway at Philadelphia International Airport that day, a winter storm was blowing through eastern Pennsylvania. There were high crosswinds. The runway was covered with ice. Blowing snow meant limited visibility.

They were conditions you wouldn't want to deal with on foot, much less at the controls of a few hundred thousand pounds of aircraft and with responsibility for all those passengers. Foster admits to wondering for a moment, "Am I up to the task?" Then it all kicked in.

"Once you know your source," Foster says, speaking about his trust in God, "then all the capabilities and knowledge you need are right there at your fingertips." So it was in Philadelphia that day. And for Foster's thousands of other takeoffs and landings. "It was a nice landing," Foster says (a pilot can sound both serious and wistful in the same breath). "The plane came to a stop without skidding. I thought I'd missed my taxiway, but the guy in the tower told me I'd taken the right one." Once you know your source.

When the pilot comes on the intercom and tells us it's OK to move around the cabin— "... but please keep your seatbelts fastened when you're seated,"—well, I obey. Maybe it's because I was once a private in the army and these people are captains. Or more likely, it's that something in their voices. Regardless of accent or gender; they usually have a ring of authority.

After talking a few times with Delta Airlines pilot Bill Foster about flying in today's security-conscious skies, I believe that for many pilots those authority tones come from a source deeper than a well-honed intercom style.

This calm authority comes first from experience—from that mental backlog of successful flights, from investing hundreds of hours in training, and from meticulous preflight preparation. And authority grows out of the trust that develops between flight crews and the engineers and technicians that build and maintain planes. In Foster's case, though, being in control ultimately comes from his conviction that God is always in control of the universe.

Even in a post-September-11 world, personal security isn't Bill Foster's first concern. He doesn't feel that another major terrorist hijacking attempt is likely, given the heightened security within the industry. Foster's wife, Jennifer, a professional singer; agrees. "There are so many fronts on which our world has changed," she says, "but I don't think such a heinous and unexpected thing as the 9/11 suicide hijackings will occur again."

Once you know your source, all the capabilities you need are right there at your fingertips.

Jennifer and Bill have been married for 10 of his 22 years as a professional pilot (16 with Delta). They have three young children. She likens her thought on Bill's working life in the air to the current concern over the several recent abductions of children in the US. "There are thousands and thousands of little girls and boys playing in their neighborhoods under normal supervision, and they're safe. Those aren't just coincidences. They're the underlying evidence of a divine law, the laws of God. That's the law I rely on."

Jennifer says, "We all have something to do through our prayers to make travel safer. By lifting our own consciousness, to understand better God's control of everything, we're helping to lift humanity's thought about security and where it comes from." Although well aware that statistics show that air travel is considerably safer than travel by car, neither Jennifer nor Bill place reliance on "better chances."

Jennifer admits that sometimes there are twinges of fear to face. She says she might see a plane overhead and just for a split second "an image flashes into thought of it falling. But just as quickly, I think of the thousands and thousands of times flights have gone normally. Those are the evidence that God's in control."

"I've had children come to visit the cockpit," Bill recalls, "and they are in absolute fear, sobbing. They ask, 'Are we gonna be safe?' I could tell the parents' concerns had been the source for those fears, and I did my best to allay their anxieties."

The Fosters understand that if you are boarding an airplane with your own children, or talking with them about safety in the neighborhood, bravado won't make them feel deep-down secure. It takes confidence in something more than yourself. To this veteran pilot—who wanted to be a race driver as a kid and today races sailboats and practices martial arts—confidence rests on understanding the principles governing flight, and the divine Principle. Bill and Jennifer are convinced that as the public more generally knows God as the governing Principle, the security of air travel—and of children playing on city streets—will improve.

"It's difficult for me to understand fear of flying," Bill says, "be cause I have such a passion for flying. But if I could imagine someone's concern, it's probably that 35,000 feet up there seems an unnatural place to be, to be so high up with 'no support.' That's not true, though. There are lots of physical laws, specifically Bernoulli's law of lift, that enable an aircraft to rise and stay aloft—that make flying happen in a reliable way. And I don't forget that divine guidance helped design and build the aircraft, that it's what inspired the Wright brothers and the other pioneers of early powered-flight.

"Maybe it's like sailing with novice sailors. If you give them something to do, something to hold on to, allow them to steer the boat, they become happy campers." Foster tries to give his passengers something to hold on to mentally through his own confidence in principles that derive from the divine Principle. It comes back to knowing who you are and who's in control, he says.

"Control actually depends on having a clear sense of identity, on knowing who you are in relation to everyone else, and who you are in relation to God. We're all connected because we have the same source, and God is that source. Do I have only the physical ability to control this equipment in adverse circumstances? If you understand who you are—that you have all the strengh, ability, and agility you need because you express the divine—then absolutely, you have the ability to handle any situation."

Bill Foster can sound like the pilot-poet Antoine de St. Exupéry when talking about the thrill of flying: "I love that sense of being one with nature, that extraordinary feeling that comes with gliding, soaring." Yet as anyone who has flown recently knows, airport security measures have created a "new normal" in air travel that can make a poet feel earthbound.

What many among the flying public don't know is that security checks are even more of a hurdle for flight crews than they are for passengers. For passengers there are random body searches at checkpoints. For pilots and flight attendants, every trip through security means a partial strip-search, for employees whose uniforms used to be sufficient symbols of trust. No one understands better than a pilot the need for effective security measures, but the new hoops to jump through, along with the "sometimes contentious battles with airline management" over contracts and compensation, have made Bill's job more difficult.

Bill Foster flies for the same reason Jennifer Foster sings, to glorify God.

"My mom always told me that we don't live, move, and have our being, our joy, in an airline—in the job itself. There are greener pastures, she'd say." Bill finds those gifts in the same source toward which St. Paul pointed the people of Athens—in Him. "Flying," he says, "is the coolest thing in the world. Sometimes I've thought, if I get another job I wouldn't have to be away from my family 50 percent of the time. But when I'm home that other 50 percent, I'm home and not dealing with the troubles that corporate executives face. It's necessary at this time to focus on the good, the joy, the reason you fly in the first place." Bill Foster flies for the same reason Jennifer Foster sings, to glorify God.

I ask if his pilot colleagues tend to see themselves and their work through a spiritual lens. "Yes, in the sense that in flying they find freedom, dominion, joy, a sense of awe, and confidence in commanding a large and complex piece of equipment. Even if they're not openly religious, underneath there's a spiritual dimension in their approach to the work—a sense that, yes, there's a divine intelligence that guides us, that's there all the time, that ultimately is in control."

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