only 1° or 2°

I don’t remember when this happened. I was too young then. It was 1979. I don’t remember if I was aware or had any emotional reaction. I’m not even certain if I would have known if I would have been disturbed. If I’m honest — and I’m not in any way attempting to be callous — I don’t know if I would have cared. Sometimes, maybe, especially when we’re younger — maybe older, too — we pick and choose what we care about. If it affects me, I care. But if it’s out of sight, it’s oft also out of mind.

It was simply supposed to be for sightseeing. For wonder and fun.

257 people were on board — 237 paying passengers combined with 20 crew members. It was indeed a unique flight, having its own tour guide aboard, who utilized the aircraft’s public address system to point out the unprecedented beauty and landmarks below.

Note, too, it was rather expensive, costing the equivalent of $2,977 per individual if in operation today.

Air New Zealand Flight 901 was a routine flight that would leave Auckland International Airport at 8:00 am. They would lower their altitude, make multiple loops, thus enabling the eager sightseers to get a great, extended glimpse of Antarctica before returning to Auckland later in the evening. It was a way to see the world’s windiest, coldest and iciest continent without all the wind, cold and ice.

But on November 28, 1979, the unthinkable happened. The much-heralded tourist excursion, instead of gliding smoothly above the arctic waters and returning to New Zealand, crashed head-on into the side of Mount Erebus. Mount Erebus is the second-highest volcano in Antarctica — standing at 12,448 feet — and the southernmost active volcano on the planet.

Allow me to briefly share the reasons for the crash and then elaborate on why a 43 year old airplane disaster felt like wise and relevant content for our time here today.

Pilots Jim Collins and Greg Cassin had never flown to Antarctica before, but each were experienced pilots with unquestionable professional credentials. Days prior to departure, they were given a copy of the approved flight plan.

However, unbeknownst to the captain and crew, when the navigational coordinates of the flight plan were entered into the plane’s computer system, a typing error was made. It was a slight error — a mere few degrees off — but recognize that over the course of a some 2,819 mile journey, 1° makes an indeed significant difference.

Nearing the continent, the pilots flew two large loops through the clouds while bringing the plane down to approximately 2,000 feet. They assumed they were over the vast McMurdo Sound, the southernmost navigable body of water in the world. Instead, they were approximately 29.3 miles East. It is believed the clouds impeded their visibility. What the pilots believed to be ice and snow in the distance, was instead Mount Erebus, right in front of them. When the proximity alarms blared shortly before 1 pm that day, it was only 6 seconds later that the plane and people met their fateful end.

It’s a fascinating account. Chilling, too, no doubt, are the film and photos salvaged from the wreckage and still able to be developed — some taken only seconds before the crash.

I share this today, no less, with a thought that’s been stewing in me during my respite. Remember that Flight 901 was only 1° or 2° off…

And while 1° or 2° might not seem like much in a moment — “It’s only a small bit — that shouldn’t matter” — over an extended period of time or a long journey or over the course of several years or a even lifetime, that minute amount can make a huge difference.

Where are those places we’ve individually decided it’s ok to be off? … it’s ok to accept something lesser or act a wee bit less moral? Where are those places that we’ve convinced ourselves it’s ok to be judgmental, to treat a certain person or people group poorly, or that it’s ok not to take responsibility? Where are those places that we’ve concluded I’m right and they’re wrong and so there’s no need to prioritize relationship? Where, too, are those spots where I’ve convinced myself that I don’t need faith or God or other people right now? … “I’ll take care of that down the road sometime…”

And since it was such a small amount at first, as time goes by, we don’t have the slightest clue as to where we are or who we’ve become or maybe even how others see us; we don’t recognize how bitter or arrogant or judgmental we’ve become… unaware of how an uncorrected single degree can transform into a huge hole in our character.

Degrees off matter, friends. May we humbly find it before it swells.