Fear and faith at 39,000 feet

Recently, I was invited to speak in Jos, the capital of Plateau state and the first town in Nigeria to attempt building a tourism economy. This was my second trip, having been there earlier in 2016. On that occasion, I flew from Calabar to Abuja, the nation’s capital, and was driven to Jos on a four-hour road trip. This time it would be easy – just one hour’s flight from Lagos. 

Did I say easy? I had forgotten how stressful it is to travel on Arik Air, the only available carrier on this occasion, as most other destinations in Nigeria had better alternatives. At 2pm, I went to the information desk, yet again, to find out what had happened to our 11.20am flight. Finally, there was an announcement: “Arik Air flight 403 has been delayed for 40 minutes,” as if the first three hours of waiting didn’t count. Eventually, we boarded four hours late but had to wait for heavy rains to subside before we could take off.

Fifteen minutes into the flight, while the cabin crew were serving refreshments, there was a loud groaning sound as the aircraft shuddered violently for a few seconds. “What the hell was that?” I asked the off-duty flight attendant sitting to my left. Less than a minute later, it happened again; louder this time, and it was definitely originating from the engine just a few feet away from my exit row seat. Then it went silent. No need to wait for his answer – the engine had shut down. 

“Cabin crew to forward galley,” urged the captain, trying to sound calm. Trolleys were quickly stowed away and the crew streamed towards the cockpit for a briefing. 

“Just remain calm,” intoned the man on my left, reaching out with a reassuring hand on my knee. I had always wondered how I would react during a flight emergency. Would I panic? Now was the time to find out. I did a quick self-assessment: breathing, normal; palms, damp; mind, calm. I had read somewhere that pilots are trained to fly with one engine and can do so without any threat to safety, so I decided to keep that as my overriding thought. I stared out the window at the fluffy clouds below and noticed that we were slowly, almost imperceptibly, turning around and heading back to Lagos. “Cool, ” I thought, “I hope it’s not too bumpy on the way down through the rain clouds.”

My musings were interrupted by a babble of voices, growing louder by the minute. It was the sound of urgent prayers, ‘speaking in tongues’ and the moaning of the distressed. “Answer your name!” a woman kept shouting at no one in particular, so I assumed it was aimed at God himself. “Blood of Jesus,” was much more familiar and was one of many phrases that cut through the cacophony. 

At this point, any quiet reflection or meditation was near impossible but I tried. I thought about the idea of faith and what it meant at a time when our mortality was being threatened. What did I believe? Did I trust God to bring me through this difficult situation and could I say, “Thy will be done” and actually mean it? Or should I start shouting too, hoping that He would hear me above the din?

I was interrupted again; this time by my flight attendant companion, asking to swap seats with me. He wanted to be next to the exit in case of an emergency landing. “I’ll be fine,” I assured him and calmly repeated the procedure for opening the door. He sat back while I looked out of the window, marvelling at the smoothness of the flight, the skill of the pilot, and the miracle unfolding all the way through to a perfect landing. As the wheels hit the runway, they jolted the praying masses into realising that the incident was over and the moaning was replaced by applause and a resounding “hallelujah!”. I offered a brief, silent prayer of gratitude and thanked my companion for his professionalism. 

I’m still wondering about the contrasting reactions on that flight – was that fear or faith? Mine or theirs? Does it really matter? Anyway, this is how I think about faith:

Imagine a child asking a parent for a gift – maybe a Christmas present. The parent makes a promise that the wish will be granted. The child goes away happy, looking forward to Christmas morning, resolved to work hard at school and help around the house, knowing the gift will be there. Imagine another child asking its parent for a gift and the parent makes the same promise. However, this time the child keeps asking, reminding the parent about the present, time after time. One child clearly trusts the parent to deliver and the other one doesn’t. Which child are you?

Sometimes, it takes a situation of life and death to discover what you believe and who you really trust. It may be a good idea to figure it out before your faith is tested. 

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9-11 

41 thoughts on “Fear and faith at 39,000 feet

  1. Its very sad. That could have ended in disaster. I always said if arik cant pay salaries how the hell are they paying to service their planes. Thank God for life! And a skilled pilot!


  2. I had a series of challenges that were verging on being problems from December 2014 to December 2015. “Faith is the victory” was my battle cry. Faith makes you act or refrain from acting, it is not passive. Worry and faith do not embrace.


  3. OMG! This is quite something man. Me already got goose bumps just by reading.. thank God it ended well and you’re still here to write about it. Stay safe and keep the faith alive


  4. Evangelist M. Williams, this is another good read for me. Absolute trust that God has it all covered does conquers fears


  5. We really really thank God for giving everybody on the flight another opportunity. We reject every spirit that carry evil breaking news.
    Just reading this piece was terrified. But God will still be God.
    Congratulations to everybody especially Michael that lives to tell the story.


  6. Phew! I can’t say I know how I’d react in a situation like that. I’d rather I didn’t find out! Thank God for keeping you all safe Michael.


  7. Your question is so powerful it almost caused me to forget the flight difficulty. How strong is one faith is unknown many times until it is tested. Some may have been praying out of fear, while some may be praying more out of belief of their prayer getting answered. I guess one with strong faith would say, “God, let thy will be done” and accept the result.


    1. Hi Robert. I agree that the states of mind would have been quite different but I think the overwhelming mood was one of fear. In my humble opinion, if your faith is strong you would not be shouting repeatedly at God – but that’s my view. Interestingly, I found genuine beauty in the moment, as we glided through a gorgeous sky.


  8. As usual Michael, you touch on a matter of life and death and make it look normal….i’d say that attitude is ‘true faith’. ‘Without faith, it is impossible to please the Father’, I’ve been taught. You simply subdued the initial fear that arose in your heart, with the WORD of God and then kept quiet, refusing to cry out like others. That was ‘ Faith in action’….confirmed.


    1. Hi Charles! Thanks very much for your kind words. I was forced to decide what I really believed in. Luckily, there was enough time to do that. You and I shared a death-defying experience four and a half years ago, and we didn’t have time for much thought or reflection. I’m grateful for yet another chance.


  9. Such a gripping and heartwarming story. Reminds me of Psalm 23: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Going through your ‘valley’, you were comforted despite the beckoning bony finger of death. You knew God was with you, even giving you latitude to smile at the storm. Adversity usually illuminates that which is hidden in the very depths of our soul, revealing the nature of our character.

    Maybe we should go deal with unfinished business while we can. Do we need to forgive someone or tell someone we love them? How about the unfulfilled dreams? Perhaps this could be our defining moment while our ‘plane’ has both engines working!


    1. Hi Paul, thanks for this response – it could almost be a blogpost on its own. Instead of giving in to fear, I forced myself to look within and see what I really believed. Would He keep me safe? Would I have the courage to accept the outcome, regardless of what it was? It helped that the flight remained smooth throughout but I had to accept that I was powerless to do anything except remain as calm as possible.


      1. Maybe you should write a part two. It may help us all understand ourselves some more. It’s a brave heart that can face death with a willingness to accept it as a possible outcome, as opposed to being overcome with terror.

        The question remains how do we live our lives moving forward. Will we live out our purpose and grasp the opportunities that come our way? Will we live full and die empty, knowing that we gave our all while we had breath? Thank God for second chances and in your case third ones!


      2. Hi Paul. This reminds me of the saying, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” The truth is that the risk of death is constant, however unlikely, and death itself is inevitable. That’s why we should value every day.

        My first brush with death happened so fast that there was no time to reflect or even react, and to this day I don’t remember the moment of impact. Some of us woke up and some didn’t, and I couldn’t control the outcome. So, it still comes down to what you believe in – not what you say or even what you pray. That’s why heroes are few – they are the only ones prepared to die for what they believe in.


  10. Hi Michael, a very interesting read. I’m glad it all ended well. Yes, we never really know how we’ll react face with death situations until we find ourselves in one.
    My wife and I were in one last year, on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. Our car after swerving left, right and left somersaulted at least three times down a hill and eventually came to a rest at the bottom of the hill. I saw myself doing multiple flips sitting strapped in the driver’s seat as the car somersaulted.
    For me, it was like a movie playing before my eyes, only this time I was actively involved in the action.
    I could hear my wife calling softly: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. ..
    I was quiet, confidently holding to my faith in God that nothing will happen to us.
    We both came out without a scratch. It was unbelievable!
    However, someone said something to us, and I’m saying the same to you Michael.
    He said: “God does not keep people alive from this kind of accident for fun, God has a purpose for your lives.”
    Michael someone called you evangelist, could he be speaking prophetically?


    1. Hi Godwin. Whether God spares us for a reason or we decide to make good of a second chance, the outcome should be the same – a decision to make the most of the time that we have and make an impact on this world. I’m doing my best to keep moving forward.


  11. Weirdly, this has happened to me before and I was fast asleep until “Blood of Jesus” woke me up!!
    Most people who claim to trust a higher power, don’t.
    My mentality is simple, the only thing sure in life is death.


  12. What a day that was Michael. With all my presumed experience flying in military planes from childhood, I haven’t had that kind of experience before.

    The sound was something else, my initial thought was perhaps a militia group (BK) has targeted the plane.

    In fact the standby emergency preparations at the airport were even more scary.


    1. Yep, tough day indeed. I was more shocked at our treatment on the ground than our experience in the air. Not a thought that people might have been scared; no compassion; no directions on next steps; a new low for me in an already poor aviation sector in Nigeria.


  13. “One child clearly trusts the parent to deliver and the other one doesn’t. Which child are you?”

    What a challenging question! I think fear has taken so much ground in my life that I have become the child who doesn’t truly trust. That being said, God has been bring so much healing in my life in the area of fear and I am learning to trust again. I am blogging through this journey and am finding it extremely helpful. I hope to soon be able to answer the question as the child who clearly trusts the parent beyond a shadow of a doubt!


    1. Hi Talasi,

      We all have our moments of doubt but, at some point, we have to choose whether we trust what we say we believe in or succumb to fear. Faith is much more comforting and empowering in tough situations, especially when you are not in control of the outcome. Blogging is a great outlet because it forces you to look deep within before committing your thoughts to the page. I wish you well on your journey!

      Liked by 1 person

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