I solicit your prayers this morning for Pastor Forrest Pollock of Bell Shoals Baptist Church. Yesterday morning he and this thirteen-year-old son departed Rutherfordton, NC, in a private plane heading for Texas. The church is providing updates on the situation at this web page.
I hold a private pilot's license, and I can tell you that air travel is generally safe. Rutherfordton County - Marchman Field (KFQD) is a non-controlled airport (i.e., there is no control tower) a few miles east of the Great Smoky Mountains. The Minimum Safe Altitude (MSA) at KFQD is only 2,600 feet (i.e., if you're flying at 2,600 feet above sea level, you're not going to run into any ground-based obstacles.), but within the first half-hour of flight westward, the MSA increases to 7,000 feet with the rapidly rising terrain.
Federal Aviation Regulations require aircraft to be equipped with an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). Designed to survive and be activated by an impact, an ELT transmits a continuous tone on a predefined frequency to alert rescue personnel to the whereabouts of a downed aircraft. Rescuers believe that they may have received transmissions from Pollock's aircraft. If this is the case, then it is almost a certainty that the aircraft collided with terrain in the Great Smoky Mountains. Many US-based aircraft are presently upgrading from analog COSPAS-SARSAT ELTs to digital ELTs capable of transmitting GPS location data to speed the location of downed aircraft. From the reports so far, it appears that Pollock's aircraft was not yet outfitted with the new equipment. This is not surprising, since satellite monitoring of the old beacons will end next year, and aircraft maintenance shops tend to wind up overbooked during transitions like this one. I mention all of this simply to say that Search-and-Rescue efforts take a while longer when looking in mountainous terrain for the older beacons.
Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) incidents in small aircraft are survivable. Consider the speed difference between smaller planes and passenger jets. I don't know what type of aircraft Pollock owns, but the average small general aviation aircraft flies at cruise speeds slower than 160 MPH. A really fast small GA aircraft will reach speeds close to 200 MPH. Contrast that with the 500-MPH-plus speeds common in passenger jet travel. If Pollock was still climbing, then the airspeed of the craft would have been much slower (just like your car, an airplane goes slower when it is going uphill). So, even if Pollock has crashed, we have reason to hope that both he and his son are still alive and are awaiting rescue. Of course, a 120 MPH collision with a mountain is no small affair, so we have both the necessary hope and the danger to motivate us to pray for Pollock fervently this morning.
I do not know what the weather might have been yesterday morning, but reports indicate that Pollock departed long before sunrise. This is a common practice among pilots of small planes—before sunrise the air is often calm, making for a smoother ride. Mountains are not illuminated at night, although they sometimes are apparent as dark silhouettes against the lights of communities beyond the mountain. It is possible that Pollock encountered some sort of mechanical problem in the mountains, but it is just as possible that he inadvertently flew his aircraft into a peak without ever seeing it (if for some reason he was below the MSA while flying through the area).
All of this I offer just so Southern Baptists, as we await word of Pollock and pray for him and his family, might have a little better understanding of what might or might not be happening and might know a little better how to pray. Specifically, here's what I have prayed for Pollock this morning:
- I have prayed asking God to preserve both Forrest and Preston Pollock alive in their aircraft.
- I have prayed for God to allow rescuers to receive a clear, strong signal from the aircraft's ELT to allow them to locate the downed aircraft very quickly today.
- I have prayed for the wreckage (presuming that the aircraft is down) to be accessible by ground vehicles for rescue personnel.
- I have prayed for the Pollocks to be able to stay warm in the mountainous overnights and mornings while they await rescue.
- I have prayed for the aircraft, which would have been full of fuel for a flight to Texas, not to have any problems with fire.
- I have prayed that any injuries to pilot and passengers would not have prevented them from having enough mobility to seek safety and shelter.
- I have prayed that God would give peace and comfort to the Pollocks' family and church family as they await God's deliverance.
Finally, let me say that there is nothing more majestic, nor any terrestrial pursuit that carries the soul closer to heaven, than the view of a starry sky out the windows of a small aircraft. May God be as close to the Pollocks in their hour of distress as he was to them as they were beholding the glories of His creation during climbout from Rutherfordton yesterday morning.