Ron’s experiences in the air and his closely held spiritual beliefs are intermingled in the personal lesson log included below — which was penned by him 2 years prior to his first record-breaking trip around the world. Ron shared these lessons (in much greater detail and peppered with plenty of groan-worthy jokes) with men’s groups, Bible studies and Sunday school classes during his decades service as an Elder and teacher in a non-denominational Bible church he helped found in 1969. More than a group leader, Ron also volunteered to mentor many individuals in crisis during those years, and served as a highly-involved role model for many.
Lesson 1: Absolutes & Attitudes
To fly an aircraft, you must accept and constantly acknowledge an absolute reference point and adjust your attitude (the way you control the aircraft) in relation to that absolute reference. The absolute in flight is the horizon — where the earth meets the sky. From the cockpit, on a clear day, the horizon is level. If you keep the aircraft’s wings even with the horizon, you too will stay level and go in a straight line. If you look out and see one wing is lower relative to the horizon than the other wing, you know you are turning. If the aircraft’s nose is above the horizon, you are climbing; and if it drops below the horizon, you are descending. This is the fundamental way you know how to direct the aircraft.
In flying, one must know one’s attitude relative to the absolute. Some crashes are due to mechanical failure, but most are due to pilot error. There has never been a crash report blaming the absolute. There are no articles entitled “Crash Due to Horizon Being Tilted.” That is the point of absolutes. They don’t change. Absolutes are immutable.
Flying is pretty easy when you can control your attitude relative to the absolute, the horizon. But what do you reference on a dark night or in a thick cloud when you can’t see the horizon? Even though you can’t see the horizon, it’s still there. When you can’t see the true horizon, the flying solution is a gyroscopic instrument in the aircraft called the “attitude indicator” which depicts a true representation of the absolute horizon. To fly safely, you must read, understand and take action based on that true representation.
In life, God is the ultimate absolute. If we control our attitude relative to Him, we get where we want to go safely. When we encounter darkness or bad weather during our flight of life, He is still there. We have a true representation of God that we can see and rely upon when we feel lost or unsure — His Word, The Bible. To live correctly and safely, we must read, understand and take action based on that true representation — especially when we don’t see God during life’s storms.
Lesson 2: Feelings vs. Truth
We can comprehend the absolutes and attitudes needed for safe flight with basic logic, particularly in good weather. But since flying is not always a fair-weather experience, we must train ourselves to believe in the instrument. This is always much harder than we anticipate. Here is why:
As a flight instructor, after Lesson One on absolutes and attitudes, I ask the student pilot to look downward while I fly the airplane or helicopter for a few minutes. I turn the aircraft in several gentle maneuvers while the student cannot see the horizon or the instruments. I ask the student to be ready to tell me if we are turning right or left — based on his or her feeling. Without fail, when I eventually ask for the direction of the turn, the student will confidently give the wrong answer: We are turning right! I tell the student to look up at the horizon, and he does so with some disorientation, seeing that we are, in fact, turning left. We try it again. Again the student is wrong. The next time, the student usually replaces we are turning right with it feels like we are turning right.
The student’s wrong answers stem from wrong feelings. Physiologically, those feelings come from the flow of fluid in the inner ear canals. After disorienting movement gets the fluid sloshing around, we may feel like we are turning right when we are really turning left. When we lose sight of the absolute, we naturally resort to how we feel. In flying, you have to understand, believe and act upon not how you feel, but rather on the truth of the absolute. You must disregard or override your wrong feelings and have faith in the truth of the instrument.
We are capable of being betrayed by wrong feelings in life as well. To stay on a good life course, we must sometimes disregard what our feelings (anger, resentment, guilt, rejection…) are telling us to do, and instead we must understand, believe, and act upon the truth of the scriptures to guide us.
Lesson 3: Factual Foundation
I’ve flown with hundreds of pilots. It’s obvious when you see a pilot who has not had solid flight training, one who rushed to get to the thrill of flight. The poorly trained pilot usually missed out on some fundamental knowledge upon which to base skill development. Flight training uses a building block approach that cannot all be learned in a classroom. But you must first build the good theoretical foundation there, upon which you later add the experiential learning which takes place during application and practice. After all, the objective is not to just gather facts, the objective is to fly! But if a student has a weak factual foundation, it shows up later — sometimes in a “crash.”
Since flying is so unforgiving of error, pilots must pass practical and written tests in order to get a license. Then, periodic reviews are mandatory to insure that a safe skill level is maintained. Airline pilots must take recurrent training and pass check rides every six months!
Likewise, in spiritual life, many people miss out on a good foundation. And then, no “check rides” are given to see if we really know the basics. Like flying, a lack of foundational spiritual knowledge and skill usually shows up later with damaging “crashes” in life. In our culture, many people treat Church like a ride as a passenger on an airliner. As long as the flight crew (clergy) knows what they are doing, we can sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery. But we are not passengers. We are the pilots of our lives. A major responsibility of the Church is to be a “flight school” to equip us to be safe life pilots. Our safety records should draw people to our “flight school.” Unfortunately, many Christians don’t have a good grip on the basic doctrinal facts. It is impossible to develop complete skills for living or flying without foundational facts.
Lesson 4: Perspective
I can still remember the shocking revelation on my fist instrument flight. It was early on a dreary, foggy morning in Alabama. I was in the final phase of Army helicopter flight school. Sitting in our Huey helicopter, we received our clearance to take off in a specified direction and climb to 3,000 feet. Under the watchful eye of my instructor, I flew us into the ominous, low, gray clouds. I was focused on the flight instruments, trying to keep the helicopter “spinning side up” (that’s pilot talk). Our outside vision was totally obscured by the thick clouds. Just as we reached 3,000 feet, we broke through the flat tops of the stratus cloud layer. It was magnificent! The rising sun was blazing, the sky above bright blue and clear, visibility completely unlimited. What seemed like terrible weather was instantly transformed into a beautiful day. We leveled off and put the lower half of the helicopter in the smooth clouds. It was like zipping along on a sled going 120 miles per hour. What an exhilarating and freeing perspective I now had!
The beautiful day was there all along, I just couldn’t see it before from my lowly position on the ground. After several more instrument take offs, it dawned on me that the truth is: Every day is a beautiful day, I just have to climb high enough to see it.
Life is like that, too. Sometimes, from where we stand, we believe that it is a dreary day. But it’s all a matter of perspective. Two different people can look at exactly the same object or set of facts from different perspectives and tally totally different conclusions. I am convinced that all conflict comes from differing perspectives. Whether it is parental, spousal, vocational, political, international, or theological — different perspectives result in conflict. From his perspective, your teenager views loud music as appropriate and beneficial. From their perspective, your company views a layoff as necessary. From God’s perspective, the only true perspective, things are under control.
In order to understand life, we must begin to see it from the Creator’s viewpoint. God’s viewpoint is revealed in His Word, The Bible. One definition of Christian maturity is a process of increasingly viewing life from God’s perspective. Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)
Lesson 5: MAYDAY! – MAYDAY! – MAYDAY!
The word mayday is the international distress call given by pilots in an emergency. When another pilot hears it being transmitted over the radio, it brings about an eerie bond with the pilot in trouble, an immediate sense of pulling for the fellow pilot to overcome the emergency, all the while knowing that you could have been in his shoes. Flying has been defined as hours and hours of sheer boredom, broken up by seconds of stark terror.
In flying and life, we must expect the unexpected. “…you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.” (James 5:14) What can we do to be prepared for the high stress periods in our lives? For the most part, in life like in flying, the time to prepare for an emergency is before you are in one.
In early November, 1985, I was ferrying a helicopter from Jackson, Mississippi back to Austin. I left Jackson early on a Saturday morning. My route took me to Shreveport and over the piney woods of East Texas. By mid-afternoon, I was near Rockdale, about 40 miles northeast of Austin, when the engine unexpectedly failed. MAYDAY! – MAYDAY! – MAYDAY!
Many people think that if a helicopter’s engine quits, you fall like a rock to a certain death. That is not true. It is more like a streamlined rock. But, if you are prepared, react immediately, and follow the proper procedure, you will have directional control of the helicopter as it falls. As it approaches the ground, you have one chance to gracefully land. Things are happening very fast, and timing is important. All you need is a flat, clear spot (preferably not water) with no trees, fences, buildings, telephone wires, etc., and you need to know what to do.
The only way to know what to do is to have practiced emergency landings in training. I was fortunate. I was near a dirt road with no wires near it. I turned the falling helicopter to line up with the road. It was just like I had practiced it many times before. I landed with no damage to the helicopter. It all happened in 20 seconds, from start to finish.
Afterwards, I was thankful that the failure hadn’t occurred an hour earlier over the piney woods, where clear spots are rare and small. I would probably still be getting pine needles out of my clothes. I was also glad that I had been well trained in dealing with emergency landings.
How about life emergencies? Are you trained to deal with the unexpected misadventures of life? How we react under stress is dependent largely on the training we’ve had. The question is not whether we will have life emergencies, but rather when we will have them. When an emergency hits, we cannot pause for training and practice — we have to deal with it right then. The Bible can provide us with practical wisdom about how to deal with life emergencies. Now is the time for training.
Lesson 6: Maintaining Balance
One definition of a helicopter is 10,000 rivets holding together 40,000 rapidly spinning parts which are constantly wearing out. I often think this definition could apply to my life as well.
In helicopter maintenance, when you have a problem, you don’t just start trying your own ideas to fix the problem. Instead, you open a thick maintenance manual that describes in detail what to do. The manual shows “exploded” pictures of how the parts are supposed to be put together to work properly. Where do you think you get maintenance manuals? Obviously, you get them from the manufacturer of the helicopter. The manufacturer knows how the helicopter should work since he designed and created it.
The same principle applies in life. When we have a problem, we need to go to our life maintenance manual — The Bible — to see how our Designer and Creator describes what we are supposed to do and how the parts are supposed to fit together.
Most helicopter maintenance problems are avoided by preventative maintenance. Regularly, mechanics get out the maintenance manual and perform preventative maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines and schedule. Likewise, in life, the best time to fix anything is before it breaks. Much of the Bible is aimed at preventative maintenance in our lives. We, like the mechanic, must regularly get The Bible out and perform this preventive maintenance.
If you encounter a really difficult helicopter problem that is not covered in enough detail in the maintenance manual, you call the manufacturer to interact with the expert on how to best analyze and fix the problem. Likewise, in life, we have a hotline to our manufacturer through prayer to help us understand and fix our life problems.
There are thousands and thousands of parts in a helicopter. Because so many of these parts rotate, balance is delicate and very important. If you have ever seen a ceiling fan that is out of balance, you can begin to get the idea. If you attached a quarter to the end of one of a helicopter’s rotor blades, it would throw the rotor system out of balance, causing uncomfortable, damaging and eventually catastrophic vibrations.
Balance is delicate and critical in life as well. We must continually balance (and re-balance, and re-balance) areas of our lives: our personal life, our family life, our work life, our church life, and our community life. If we let one of these areas get too much or too little time or attention, our lives pick up an uncomfortable, damaging, and sometimes catastrophic vibration. Because God is interested our whole life working well, He as given us detailed information in The Bible on what we need to do in all these life areas to keep our lives running the way He designed them to run.
Lesson 7: Preparation
My favorite advantage of flying a helicopter is that you are able to fly lower (and slower) and see so much more than from a high-flying airplane.
In October 1991, I flew a helicopter from London, England to Jerusalem. It was a very long trip — almost 3,000 miles. Rather than choosing the direct route through Albania and Croatia, I decided on a more scenic and less stressful path: London to Paris, Marseille, via the French Riviera – Cannes; then east across northern Italy, stopping at Florence, then down the coast of Italy to the heel; then to Greece – Korfu, Corinth, Athens, eastward through the isles of Rhodos; then to Cyprus; then to Jerusalem. The route was similar to Paul’s second missionary journey in reverse. Like most long trips (particularly in a helicopter), it was really a series of short trips. While it was important to know my ultimate destination, I didn’t spend most of my time thinking about what I would do when I got there. Instead, most of my attention was focused on the leg of the journey I was on, since I was traveling in foreign territory.
Life’s trip is like that, too. Our final life destination as Christians is the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), Heaven. In order to get to the destination, we have to complete a series of short (daily) trips, often through foreign territory. The Bible gives us some description of the destination, but most of it describes how to deal with our short daily trips.
Going through the Greek islands at low altitude was spectacular. I waved and gave a toothy smile to the crew of a surfaced submarine. I crossed their bow at 50 feet. The radar man below was probably panic-stricken. While over-water flights can offer interesting sights, it required some special preparation before I began. In the event of an emergency, I wanted to have a life raft, survival equipment, an emergency radio, and a bag of Oreos. Also, my flight planning got more attention. Checking weather and winds got a lot more of my attention than usual as I prepared for the Rhodos, Greece to Larnaca, Cyprus leg of my journey. The distance was 300 miles over water with no islands. The helicopter could fly about 350 miles on a full tank of fuel. An un-forecast wind or a small navigation error might get me a chance to swim in the blue Mediterranean. It was essential for me to stay on a straight line course.
The Bible tells us that life, too, requires attention to preparation and knowing how to stay on a straight course to avoid danger (Matt 7:14). We need to be prepared for enroute adversity as well (James 1:3). We need to know what The Bible says in order to be prepared for our daily trips.
Lesson 8: Laws
As we have witnessed in countless tragic airplane crashes, the physical laws (of aerodynamics and gravity) apply to aircraft. The law of aerodynamics allows that if enough air can go over a wing, it will create lift and enable the airplane to fly, overcoming the law of gravity. If you cannot keep enough air flowing over the wing, the law of gravity takes over and brings the plane to the ground. The ways in which physical laws affect physical matter are reliable and predictable. Whether you understand, believe, or are even aware of a physical law has absolutely no effect on whether the law applies. It applies!
In the same reliable and predictable ways that physical laws affect physical matter, there are spiritual laws which affect spiritual matters. Whether you understand, believe, or are even aware of a spiritual law has absolutely no effect of whether the law applies. It applies!
Are people subject to spiritual laws? Are we human beings having a spiritual experience, or are we spiritual being having a human experience? The Bible tells us that God is a Spirit (John 4:24), and we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). We are spiritual beings. When we attempt to measure our human experience of three score and ten years on earth versus an eternity as spiritual beings in Heaven (or Hell), it seems unreasonable and illogical to not know about spiritual laws.
In flying, you can’t break the physical laws. For every action, there will be predictable consequences. If you go too fast in an airplane, you will do structural damage (usually the tail leaves first). In life, you can’t break the spiritual laws. For every action, there will also be predictable consequences. Many of us are spinning out of control with no tails. We should be aware of, knowledgeable about, and believe in spiritual laws since they reliably and predictably apply to us.
55 years flying
1994 around the world eastbound & solo
1996 around the world westbound
’59-’68: school, love, war
’82-on: aviation sales
life lessons from flying