What I Learned From The Airplane Crash

"The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, 'destroy them.'" Deuteronomy 33:27

July 13, 1985, Mr. Bob Gregg and I experienced an airplane crash. We took off to the south from Summit Airpark in Middletown, Delaware at approximately 7:15 P.M. At 340 feet above ground level the engine quit. I switched to the right main gas tank, hoping this would cause the engine to restart. The terrain below was filled with houses, trees, power lines, and busy roads. I picked out a freshly reaped soybean field ahead and to the left to make an emergency landing. Everything was going well until the right wing hooked on a power line and swung the plane in an arc to the right. We came down on the right wing, then the bottom of the fuselage and bounced backward about sixty feet through the air before coming to rest. Mr. Bob Gregg was scalped on the upper right side of his head and received two compressed fractured vertebrae in his lower back. I received multiple fractures around my right eye. My nose was crushed and the floor under my right eyes we crushed. I also received one compressed fractured vertebrae in my lower back. Two weeks later I wobbled back into my pulpit and preached this message I am bringing to you today. My first impressions of that time have stood the test of time.

i.  None of us are immune from accidents

When that engine quit at about 340 feet above ground level, I confess that my very first thought was, "This isn't supposed to happen to me." Like most folks I subconsciously thought accidents are for the other guy. There are 1200 to 1400 people killed in airplane accidents each year but it had always been the other guy. There are some 50,000 people killed in car wrecks each year, but it had always happened to the other guy. There are some 50,000 people who get murdered every year, but this, too, had always been the misfortune of the other guy.

Any one of us can become "the other guy". In the above statistics of yearly fatalities are some of the finest Christians who ever lived.

I don't consider myself worthy to shine the shoes of the great patriarch Job, but I think I experienced to some degree what he did. "Satan, have you observed that my servant Tom Berry has served me for forty years?" "Why shouldn't he? He's not serving you for nothing. Look at the way you have blessed him physically, materially, and with the joys of family and friends. Let me really lay it on him and he'll curse you to your face." "Okay, Satan, but spare his life."

With joy I can share that I've never questioned God, doubted God nor harbored one feeling of resentment or bitterness. My heart has only been filled with boundless praise to God for letting me live to serve Him again. I believe that this proves again that when faith in God is real and love for God is real there is nothing the Devil can do to take it away.

II. Be Careful About Being Presumptuous

The idea of flying is frightening to many, but not to me. With over 1500 hours of flying experience I do not think any more of flying an airplane than driving a car.

When I left to go fly the plane that Saturday evening, I hugged my wife, kissed her and said, "Well, I shall go challenge the heavens." I only meant to be humorous but that statement was brought back to my mind many times. Being well aware that Satan is the prince of the power of the air, I do not think I shall make a similar statement again.

I am not insinuating humor is wrong. If it were not for good wholesome humor I think I would be ready to take an immediate exit from this life. Nor do I feel that flying is wrong. Two and one-half months after the accident I flew as co-pilot with Rev. Richard Grammar to Chattanooga. Six and one-half months later I was flying my own plane again. There is a new consciousness of dependence on God while flying --and while doing everything else.

III. When Faith Is Real It Can Stand The Test

So many people have said, "I'll bet that when that engine quit it was a frightening experience." I can testify before God that I never experienced even a millisecond of fear.

When that engine quit my second thought went something like this, "Forty years ago I settled my salvation with Jesus Christ. In a few seconds I may be alive and well or I may be alive and injured or I may be physically dead but standing before God. Thank God that live or die, I belong to God. My job right now is to do the best I can to get this plane safely into that farmer's field." May I pause to ask you, what if you suddenly became "the other guy" looking death in the face? Would you have a serene peace that live or die all is well between your soul and God?

When I crawled out of that plane I had no thoughts or concern for my physical will being. I was calling out to Bob, asking if he was all right.

A paramedic said, "After all you've been through you are lucky to be in the shape you are in." I'm glad I could answer, "you can put it in the category of luck if you want but I put it in the category of the grace and mercy of God." I'm glad that at that point I could raise both hands to heaven and add, "And I give to Him all the praise and the glory."

When the pain and discomfort were great, I'm glad I was able to say, "This is a small price to pay for God letting me live and serve Him again."

When faith is real it will hold up under the greatest of tests.

IV. When Helpless, We Are In The Hand Of God

When the right wing hit the power line and we were swung in a violent arc to the right and nose downward my last act was to pull up on the yoke. We had been gliding slowly just above stalling speed and there was a question that there was enough air flowing over the elevator to bring the nose up. We could have hit nose down, and would not have survived. When we hit the ground with a powerful impact and violently flung about in the cockpit we could have easily been killed. One spark could have exploded the gas in the plane.

As serious as our injuries were, Bob Gregg and I shortly returned to a rather normal life. In less than three weeks I attended the graduation of my son, Dan from the police academy in Atlanta. In four weeks I began working a nine-hour a day schedule in the ministry. By January Bob was working a full shift at Millwrights Local 1545.

V. The Value of Loving Friends

The word seemed to spread like wildfire that Bob and I was involved in an airplane crash. The hospital switchboard was jammed for hours with incoming calls and the halls were filled with visitors. I think my friends may have been a bit of a pain to the hospital and doctors but there are no words in human language to describe the inner encouragement and strength my friends' love and prayers gave to me.

With crushed bones and bruised body I rested on a celestial bed of comfort. Every mail delivery brought expressions of care that produced unspeakable joy.

When I was taken to the operating room I was able to say to the doctors with utmost confidence "You can't miss. There are thousands of people praying for you right now."

VI. God Gives Songs In The Night

The first few nights seemed indescribably long. The nerve center on the right side of my face had been smashed. My right eye had sagged down into my sinus cavity. The crushed bone and cartilage from my nose filled my nasal passages and made it impossible to breathe through my nose. Blood caked in my mouth and throat and it felt more raw than I had ever experienced. A compressed fractured vertebra gave constant pain.

On Wednesday morning, three and one-half days after the crash I was awake when the first rays of light began to penetrate the room. The tune of a song was already going through my mind. I couldn't quite get the words of it and so I began to sound out the melody. A word would come, and then two. Then a phrase. When Jeanette came she helped me work out the words of the first verse of the song. It was:

Day by day and with each passing moment
Strength I find to meet my trials her
Resting in my Father's wise bestowment
I've no cause for worry or for fear."
(written by Lina Sandell Berg)

I wept because the words were so true. God had communicated with my spirit in the night watches and given a song in the night. Faith was strengthened; love was deepened; commitment became more determined and joy knew no bounds.

  1. Bringing Glory to God is the Greatest Thing

On Thursday the fractured bones around my right eye were wired back in place; a floor was built under my right eye; my right cheekbone was moved back into proper alignment and my nose was straightened. In the next few days I rapidly improved. I was thankful for the prospect of many things after recovery: returning home, visiting family, renewing fellowship with friends, getting back into the work harness, etc.

I must say, however, that the burning desire in my soul was to honor God the best I could for the rest of life for, as Augustine put it some 1700 years ago, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

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Copyright 2002 Thomas E Berry
All Scriptures quoted from the NKJV unless otherwise noted