The four seater single engine plane had accelerated down the runway for take-off, easily became airborne in the calm early September Alaskan air, made the base leg and turned parallel to the airstrip as it continued to gain altitude. Without any warning the engine stopped. The pilot said something into his keyed microphone to the traffic controller, and pointed the plane down. I was too uneducated about flying to realize we were in an emergency.
As a young man excited to be taking a small engine airplane flight from North Pole to some remote village on the Yukon River, I was slightly irked that we had to land back at the airport. Early that morning, Jimmy Barefoot, Harvey Fiskeaux, and I met with the pilot, Bob Carr, and loaded our gear into the airplane. We were to fly down the Yukon River to where God’s Fishwheel was moored on the bank of the river. It was a boat that had been used for summer evangelism to Indian villages along the river by a team of young men sponsored by Polar Evangelism. They had spent their summer stopping at villages where they would hold vacation Bible School for the children as well as take any opportunity they could to witness to the adults in the villages. At the end of their tour, they left the boat and flew back to Fairbanks and then on to their various responsibilities. But God’s Fishwheel had to be brought back. That was our mission.
Harvey, Jimmy, and I were to be dropped off at the village, and then bring the boat 180 miles upriver to Nenanna, which is about thirty miles southwest of Fairbanks. Along the way we would look for bear and moose, for which we had harvest tags. We were looking forward to the adventure, but did not plan for our plane’s engine to stop before we had gained less than 300 feet in altitude. That’s when the grace of God and the cool head of the pilot became engaged. He immediately gained clearance to put the plane back down, but now it would be without power. Thank the Lord we had just enough elevation to make the turn, line up with the center of the runway, and land with even a little room to spare.
What happened? We had done the preflight inspection and everything checked out. There was fuel and letting a little gasoline out of the stopcocks under the wings which contained the fuel tanks indicated that no water was present. After we crawled out of the plane we checked again. This time when Bob pushed the stopcock at the bottom of the fuel tank, it yielded not airline fuel, but water! Since the tanks were not full, changes in temperature over several days of inactivity allowed moisture to build up inside of the fuel tank. Water is heavier than gasoline, and it settled to the bottom. But why did it not show up before take-off? Apparently, there was just enough sag in the wings so that the moisture gathered toward the wing tips as the plane was on the ground. When the plane took off, the wings under the strain of lift would have straightened, sending the water toward the fuel lines. In any case, we tipped up the ends of the wings and held the stopcocks open until all the water drained and we had pure airline fuel again.
This time it was with some nervous excitement that we re-boarded the plane and with considerable attention to engine noise and airspeed that we again took our flight. Nothing else of note occurred on the flight, except that it is always noteworthy to see from the air the beautiful handiwork of God in creation, and
Alaska is blessed with an abundance of beauty. We retrieved the boat, harvested a moose, and landed safely several days later on the banks of the Nenana River with God’s Fishwheel.
When will I die? I don’t know. It could have easily been when that plane engine stopped. What if we had taken more time warming up the engine and were not able to gain more than, say, fifty feet of altitude? There would have been no time for a successful emergency landing. I rather think that the Lord looked in that plane and had plans for three young men to be evangelists and pastors and one to continue as a missionary pilot instead of victims written about in American newspapers.
It could have been even earlier than that when at the age of sixteen I received my driver’s permit. I was with my father and older brother driving down Philipsburg Mountain. I had asked my brother if he would let me drive and he consented. But when we got to the little town of Port Matilda, he said, “Okay, Dave. Let me drive now.” The light had turned red, so it was time to switch drivers. We got out and he took his seat behind the wheel. I was still walking around the car to get into the back seat when the light changed to green. Another second or so and I was in the car, only to look up and see an eighteen wheeler blow through the red light and speed through the intersection. Timing! If I had remained behind the wheel and pulled into the intersection as usual, that huge truck would have plowed into us, likely leaving no survivors. I like to think that God looked into that car and had plans for a university professor to continue to share his testimony of salvation with numerous farmers who would come to his laboratory for help with their poultry flocks, plans for a surgeon who would experience a special touch from God and witness to thousands of people many of whom would come to Christ, plans for a college student who would gain a vision for evangelism and make a priority to share the gospel with others.
We know that “it is appointed unto men once to die” (Heb. 10:27). We don’t know when that appointment is. For some of us it looks nearer than for others, but we really do not know. “But I trusted in thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my God.
My times are in thy hand” (Ps. 31:14:15a).
When I was a youth, trying to find my way and my purpose in life, I considered the options that I thought lay before me. I thought of making money, or making a name, but concluded that the best thing I could do would somehow be involved in making a difference in people’s lives for eternity. In God’s providence, He prompted me to begin by sharing the gospel where I was, on the university campus. That led to ministry in various venues and a lifetime of gospel work.
Each of us has the opportunity to make a difference. Whatever our calling, we can all somehow reflect the grace of our Lord. In the end, whether we have been a veterinarian, a gardener, a truck driver, a seamstress, or a minister, what matters is that we keep the faith and point others to Jesus. We all have the privilege, by God’s good grace, to hear those words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21). After all, that’s all that matters.