Theology of TACA Flight 110
by Thomas Katsampes

April 2, 2014

TACA Flight 110 was an international scheduled airline flight operated by TACA Airlines, traveling from Belize to New Orleans. On May 24, 1988, the flight lost power in both engines but its pilots made a successful deadstick landing on a grass levee, with no one aboard sustaining more than minor injuries. The captain of the flight, Carlos Dardano of El Salvador, had only one eye due to crossfire on a small flight to El Salvador, which was undergoing a civil war at the time. You can watch the documentary here. Note that although the opening picture on the video shows a broken-up airliner, when you watch the video you'll see there was no damage to TACA flight 110 as a result of the landing.

The landing of the Boeing 737 with both engines out by a one-eyed pilot on a grassy levee has become legendary among pilots and aviation enthusiasts. The accident was the first time that a jetliner had been dead-sticked (i.e. landed without power) with no impact damage to the aircraft and no injuries (the engines were damaged in flight), and the first - and so far only - time that an accident aircraft of this size had been later flown away from the accident site. Usually aircraft are so badly damaged that they have to be written off. I was reading the comments on Youtube about this flight. Most of the comments congratulated the flight crew for exemplary handling of the emergency and superb airmanship. Buried deep in the comments, was the following from about six months ago:

Spectacular landing. But it bothers me when people on the ground thank God for it, they discredit the pilot when they do this. The pilot who put it down in one piece can thank God that he was given the ability and the circumstances to do it. Others should thank the pilot. We all know God couldnt care less about airplane passengers, just watch other episodes of this series.

Of course comments like these grab my attention, and I wanted to say a few words about it. The question raised here is obvious: To what extent is God really involved in human affairs?We as Christians would likely react to something like this by saying that there were "angels holding up the wings," or that God was with the flight crew, or offer some other explanation of what seems like a "miracle." When Chesley Sullenberger dead-sticked his bird-stricken A-320 into the Hudson river a few years ago, the event was immediately dubbed "The Miracle on the Hudson," crediting God for His personal intervention (after all, a miracle is by definition the intervention of the Divine in human affairs) which allowed Sullenberger to accomplish this amazing feat of piloting.

So are TACA flight 110, US Airways 1549, and other such events where precious lives appear to be snatched from the jaws of death really miracles? How much does God have to do with such events? Are these events acts of God, or acts of good airmanship? If you watch a number of the airline accident investigation documentaries on Youtube, you'll quickly discover that happy landings such as TACA flight 110 are the rare exception rather than the rule. Pilots are, after all, human beings, and flying 100 tons of metal loaded with other people through the friendly skies at 500 miles an hour is an inherently risky business. We've mitigated much of that risk over the years by continuous improvements in aircraft, avionics, FAA regulations, processes, procedures, standards, and so on, to the point that you'd have to take a commercial airline flight every day for 10,000 years before you'd be certain to be involved in an accident. However, as long as there are humans at the controls, there can and there will be accidents - and many if not most major airline accidents do not end well.

I would like to offer two responses here to the question of whether accidents that end well are acts of God or acts of good airmanship. The first is to consider the implications of maintaining the position that good outcomes are acts of God, and the second is to consider what really constitutes a miracle and whether or not these events ought to qualify as such.

If we maintain the position that outcomes such as TACA flight 110 are acts of God (i.e. miracles), I think we put God in an impossible position. For if God "saved" the passengers on Flight 110, then what about the passengers on all of the flights whom God did not save? Was God acting by not saving those passengers? We could say that "God had other plans for them," but that seems to me to be a callous and superficial response. If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent (all-good), then why would He allow just a few passengers in these sorts of accidents to live and most others to die? This makes God capricious, and if we believe anything about God, we believe that God does not play favorites. Herein lies the problem. We can't realistically argue that God acts to bring about good circumstances, but then God goes on leave when circumstances turn bad. Because He is God, God cannot go AWOL; but the hard truth is that certain people survive these accidents while many others die - others who probably prayed just as hard to God to save them. People praise God when lives are saved, but when lives are lost few people praise Him - and those that do are usually dismissed as nutty or cruel. However, the perplexing problem here is that if TACA flight 110 was in fact a "miracle," i.e. divine intervention, then God must also be responsible (rightly or wrongly) for countless tragedies because of His failure to intervene to prevent disaster.

What is a miracle? Consider the cases of the resurrection of Lazarus, the healing of the demoniac, the feeding of the 5,000, and so forth. These are miracles because they demonstrate the direct intervention of God Himself into human affairs. The resurrection of Lazarus was a natural impossibility - a resurrection goes against the natural law which results from the Fall of Adam: that is that all people are eventually subject to death - and that once dead, there is no second life. The appearance of God (Jesus Christ) in the world changed all of that - God personally bent the rules of the natural law which had subjected Lazarus to a permanent death, and He raised Lazarus from the dead. Now, consider that there was recently a woman who had been deaf for many years. She received a cochlear implant and is now able to hear more or less normally again. But I would not consider this a miracle. For God Himself did not personally intervene to change the laws of Nature; the implant was created by man according to the laws of nature and was implanted into the woman's ear so that she could hear. I thank God for giving doctors the ability to do amazing things, but in the end the doctors - not God - put the cochlear implant in the woman's ear. A bold statement perhaps - but I appeal to the fact that when Jesus healed the ear of the servant on the night in He was betrayed, Jesus didn't give the man a cochlear implant - He didn't need to. He merely touched his ear and it was completely healed. God's personal healing touch is a miracle; the cochlear implant is not (though it may seem that way to the recipient).

In cases like TACA flight 110, I argue that God does not personally intervene. TACA flight 110 was not a miracle, it was an act of outstanding airmanship by a pilot with exceptional God-given talents which resulted in a picture-perfect dead-stick landing. Lesser pilots could not have done what Captain Dardano did on that fateful day. Lesser pilots could not have ditched an A-320 in the Hudson river as Sullenberger did at the controls of US Airways 1549. God sets the laws of nature, but the cases where God intervenes to break those laws are extraordinarily rare - and when He does, He does it in a spectacular way. We, like the mythical Icarus, have chosen to take to the skies, and that decision carries with it a certain amount of risk. If we credit God - and not the pilot - with saving the lives of otherwise ill-fated passengers, we also have to credit God - and not the pilot - when people make mistakes that result in Icarus' fate and passengers lives lost. But we are generally not willing to ascribe "credit" to God when tragedies happen, because as believers we cannot countenance Divine complicity in evil (the senseless loss of life). Ultimately the responsibility for the flight rests with the captain and his flight crew, not with God. We ought to praise the pilot - not God - for good airmanship, and we should blame the pilot - not God - for poor airmanship. This also obviates the problem that the comment raises: "we all know God couldn't care less about airplane passengers." We can maintain that God cares about airplane passengers but also reasonably maintain that God does not directly and personally intervene in commercial airline operations.

So, back to the original question - to what extent is God truly involved in human affairs? Yes, we believe in a personal God, One to whom we can pray and Who personally knows us, our frailties, and so on. But on the other hand God has set things up in certain ways - the natural laws of the physical universe, e.g. "what goes up, must come down." Jesus said if one's faith were like a grain of mustard seed he would say to that mountain over there, be thrown into the sea, and it would be done. But there is no recorded case in Christendom of anyone throwing a mountain into the sea.

Can we not miraculously move mountains (or save stricken airliners) because our faith is weak, or because God has decreed it a physical impossibility?

Perhaps the laws of faith and the laws of physics are really two sides of the same intractable coin.

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