On April 28, 1988, a stewardess named Clarabelle Lansing was collecting drinks from the passengers in row five when a large portion of the plane’s roof blew off and the resulting pressure caused her to be sucked away into the sky. There is a detailed explanation for why the roof of Aloha Airlines Flight 243 flew off in the middle of the flight, but I’m not a bright enough person to understand it. All I know is that the roof of a plane blew off, a lot of people got hurt, the plane made an emergency landing and it was, to say the least, a terrifying experience. Clarabelle Lansing, the stewardess who blew away, was the only person that died. Her body was never found.
My father told me all about Flight 243 when it happened. It was the kind of story he liked. He would shake his head and say, “Can you imagine what it would be like to see that lady get sucked out of the plane like that?” My father was the type of person who would slow down to get a good look at car accidents. He’d crane his neck and turn back to me and say, “God, somebody’s dead.” The disaster of Flight 243 happened when I was ten, and at that time I was then convinced that the sky, much like the road, was completely unsafe and filled with death.
By the time I reached age thirty-two, I’d mostly forgotten about Flight 243 until it was brought up in a sermon at my church in North Carolina. The pastor, it turned out, knew someone on the flight. To illustrate the superiority of Christ, the pastor told the following story, paraphrased by me: “When the roof of that plane blew off people began a screamin’ and a shoutin’. But in all those cries, only one name kept a comin’ up over and over. Jesus. Not Allah, not Buddha. Jesus. When the people on that a plane thought they were gonna die, they all shouted out for help and they all shouted out for Jesus!”
As a skeptical person (and one who secretly mocks the pastor behind his back), I have trouble buying this story. Still, I thought about it recently when I boarded a flight set to go from South Korea to Beijing, and then I thought about it again on my flight from Beijing to Bangkok. Theologically speaking, I’ve been a bit of a contradiction for the past two years. I go to church, but I don’t believe anything the pastor says. I read my dumbed-down version of the Bible, but I forget everything right after I read it. I pray sometimes, but I never expect anything to come of it. I tell myself I believe in heaven, and then I sin like it’s going out of style (and we all know sin will never go out of style).
So what do I really believe? Sitting on the plane and looking up at the roof, I knew what my thoughts would be if something happened like it did on April 28, 1988. It’s like a test, isn’t it? The Roofless Plane Test, you can call it. If the roof of a person’s plane suddenly blows off, could that person really truly sit there and NOT ask God to save them? In my heart, I know that I couldn’t. There’s nothing fancy about my beliefs. I have no smart argument for why I believe in God, I just know that if the roof of my plane blew off and death was right there in the big blue sky, I would pray hard and loud and with all the conviction of a hyperbolic southern pastor.
I know the counter argument would be that the people on that flight were saved by a quick-thinking expert pilot. Not God. Not Allah or Buddha for that matter. When I think of the story, though, I don’t put myself in the shoes of the survivors. Instead I put myself in the shoes of that poor Hawaiian stewardess, who lost her life all alone, a small blip in the ocean air somewhere just above the shores of Maui.