MY VIEW FROM THE COCKPIT
The Personal Testimony of Dr. David Parsons
This is my story. It is also available in:
Spanish Abbreviated, or you can watch it http://www.execmin.org/LeadershipResources/winning/fullMessage.html
Imagine yourself flying an airplane. You are alone. It is just after sunrise and you are flying into a beautifully blue, cloudless morning. Below you, is a gorgeous green carpet, as far as your eye can see. You are about 2,500 feet in the air.
The plane in this story. David in the OV-10 Bronco in 1969
Now let’s make your flight experience hazardous. Let’s have your plane inverted. But this plane isn’t flying. It’s falling. As it falls, it descends with a wild spinning motion and the nose is violently pitching up and down. You are in an “inverted spin.”
The Air Force tells pilots, if you ever get into an inverted spin, be sure and eject above 10,000 feet. Obviously, you are in trouble.
The manufacturer says don’t ever get into an inverted spin because the airplane cannot stand the stresses; it will come apart. But you are blessed. You are sitting on one of the finest ejection seats ever designed. But, if you pull the ejection handle, you are going to be rocketed right into that green carpet.
The green carpet is called the “Catcher’s Mit.” It is an extremely hostile area of triple canopy jungle in South Vietnam, controlled by the Viet Cong. You certainly don’t want to be there. The airplane is heavily armed and, unless something happens, you will be part of a phenomenal fireball on impact.
This is a true story. I’ve set you up with what really happened to me in 1969. I was a fighter pilot assigned as a forward air controller (FAC) to the US Army. I’m able to tell this story, so obviously the airplane recovered. But the physics of flight are such that when a plane is falling, there are no flight dynamics. The stick and rudder are useless. I tried everything I knew to get that airplane out of the spin. Nothing worked. But suddenly, the nose pitched down. When that happened, the airplane again began to fly, but it had no maneuvering flying speed. I had to give up even more altitude to gain enough flying speed to make a high G pull-out just before the plane would have impacted the green carpet.
As I recovered, a new problem developed. This high G pull-out made an enormous roar that was heard all over that part of the Catcher’s Mit. Every Viet Cong was now shooting at me. I had to avoid their gunfire by banking the plane aggressively from one side to the other while simultaneously trying to climb to get out of the range of their automatic weapons. Finally, the plane reached a safer altitude and I began to breathe again.
What do you think my first thoughts were? Do you suppose it was, “You are one lucky guy?” Do you think I said, “Wow, thank you God?” NO! I said to myself, “I have just saved this airplane from an unrecoverable situation. I must really be a good pilot.” That thought was the beginning of what I now call “The Attitude.”
I took off more than 450 times to wage war. Each time I safely landed, The Attitude continued to grow. As you will see, as I tell this story, my compulsive drive for success in everything I did resulted in both failure in the work place and failure in the heart. Like that airplane in the inverted spin, the “I” in my life was out of control.
In 1966, more than 600 American soldiers were dying every week in Vietnam. I was a senior in college, and newly married, when I received a letter ordering me to report for my draft physical.
As we were going through the exam, it was discovered that I was color-blind. I asked the crusty old sergeant, “Does this mean I can’t be drafted?” and he said “No young man, this just means you will never drive an Army truck!”
In a few weeks I received my draft notice. Quickly, I went down to the enlistment office and found out that the Air Force would allow me to complete college and then go to Officer Training School. As I enlisted in the Air Force and was filling out the papers, they asked me what I wanted to do. I had no idea. They asked,
“Why don’t you become a pilot?”
“Why can’t you?”
“Because I am color-blind”.
“Who told you are color-blind?”
They just laughed and said, “You let the Air Force tell you if you are color-blind.”
So I went for the Air Force flight physical. It’s an all day event. I was escorted through the exam by a medical technician who was about my age and, like me, was an athlete. Between all the tests, we talked sports and established a nice friendship.
One of the last things I had to do was to take the color vision test. In the test book, there are pages with strange colored splotches arranged within a circle. He asked me what number I saw. I have now taken this test many times, and to this day, I had never seen any number. I don’t know why he did what he did next, but he went through every single page slowly, asking, “Don’t you see the difference between this splotch and that splotch?”
I answered, “No, I don’t”.
So we went through that book, not once, not twice, but three times and on each page, he told me the number. So finally I asked, “I guess this means I fail the exam”.
“Oh yes, you failed it. You cannot be an Air Force pilot and be color-blind.”
We walk out to the area where the other med techs were standing and suddenly he said to them, “I forgot to give this guy the color vision test.” He asked one of his buddies to go in and give me the color vision test. We went back in and I recited the numbers from memory and his buddy initialed on my flight physical form that I had normal color vision!
But the exam was not over. I had to receive a waiver because, as a child, I had a seizure disorder with six episodes of lost consciousness. Before this flight physical, I had been on an anticonvulsant medicine for 10 years. No one with any episode of lost consciousness, or any type of seizure; or any history of anticonvulsant drug therapy can ever go to pilot training.
Having passed the rest of the exam, I was sent to see a neurologist to see if it would be possible to get a waiver. As I walked into his waiting room, the door to the neurologist’s office was ajar. I was the only person in the waiting room but he must have assumed he was alone. On the phone, he was having a knock down, drag out fight with his wife. He slammed the phone down and came charging out of his office. He was furious. I was scared to death. He grabbed my paperwork and asked me what I was doing there. I quickly told him the story, he asked me a couple of questions, and in his anger said, “Your doctor made a mistake. You were misdiagnosed and never should have been on that medicine.” He signed the papers and I was cleared to fly (however, my seizures with six losses of consciousness and extensive drug therapy were quite real).
This unbelievable event continues! I wore glasses. You can’t wear glasses and start USAF pilot training. Your vision has to be perfect. Six months before that flight physical, I quit taking the anticonvulsant medicine and started having headaches. My eye doctor said, “You don’t need glasses any more.” I took off the glasses, the headaches went away, and I passed the flight physical. Six months later, I needed the glasses again and have worn them ever since. Color blind with a history of seizure disorder, unconsciousness, on major drug therapy, wears glasses, but still gets to go to USAF pilot training! Unbelievable but true!
At that time, until someone actually got into the airplane and tried flying it, there is no way to tell if they were going to be any good or not. You could not take a test. You just had to do it. I climbed into the airplane and it was a perfect fit. When I was awarded my wings a year later, I was recognized as a Distinguished Graduate. I went to two fighter assignments and in both planes won the Top Gun award.
There were 30 guys in my fighter class, and we really got to know each other well. Many became extremely close friends. A minor administrative problem developed and my departure was delayed for five weeks, but my classmates went on over to begin the fight in Vietnam. As I was getting ready to board my flight to Vietnam, I put my arms around my wife to tell her goodbye. Suddenly,
an immense feeling of fear and death came over me. I felt that this would be the last time I would ever hold my wife.
I arrived in Vietnam and was immediately issued a steel helmet, a sidearm, a survival vest, and a machine gun. This was war. I went out to my unit, checked in and found out that three of my classmates were already dead. I was absolutely devastated. That night I desperately tried to sleep, but without success.
Somewhere in the middle of that miserable night, the first of what would be many, many, many rocket attacks occurred. I felt like I would vibrate out of that bed. I so desperately wanted to pray. I wanted to know God. I wanted a faith so that I would know that He was going to protect me. But I felt my prayers were like talking to a wall. I didn’t know God. Many more times during the course of that year and the years to follow, I would want to know more about Him. But never once did I feel like He even knew who I was.
As a kid, I grew up in small town in Oklahoma. My parents took me to church every Sunday. They were good people. I knew the right words. I could carry on a religious conversation with most people. But my faith never matured from those childhood days. I had no relationship with God. I didn’t know that such a thing existed. I had gotten into life-in-the-fast-lane and loved it. Up until that wretched night with the rocket attacks, there had never seemed to be a need for God.
I survived that horrible night and soon began flying one or two combat missions every day. As a forward air controller, I went to the Army briefings each day and I knew where our guys were going to be. I knew who might be at risk for real trouble. When a firefight occurred, I was immediately overhead and in radio contact with our guys. As I was fully armed, I either assaulted the enemy myself or coordinated and directed fighter strikes or artillery support.
For those guys on the ground, I was the best friend they had. I was always where the action was. The missions we flew in the OV-10 Bronco had one of the highest percentages of casualties of any Air Force mission in Vietnam. Before that year was over, many more of my classmates would die. But each time I came back from a flight, I said to myself “I came back today for one reason, because I am really good.” The Attitude continued to grow. When my tour was over, was there any need to pray? No way. I was on my way to the top. Who needed God?
Then my dream assignment came. The F-105 Thunderchief. It was the fastest low altitude fighter in the free world -- over two and a half times the speed of sound on the treetops. It was a fighter that every young fighter pilot wanted to fly. One guy alone in the airplane. It was fantastic. To fly the “Thud,” as it was affectionately called, you had to go to a fighter upgrade school that was one of the most prestigious fighter weapons schools in the world.
The F-105D Thunderchief
When I got there, the instructors immediately assaulted me because my background was as a FAC. They wanted “real fighter pilots.” I should have been humbled but instead, I was challenged. If you saw the movie Top Gun, the character Tom Cruise played wanted so desperately to be the Top Gun that he would do anything to win it, including violating the rules of engagement. I did not violate the rules of engagement and by the third strike mission, I beat my instructor. There were 17 strike missions in the program. All of the instructors wanted to fly against me to prove that no student could beat them, but each time I came back victorious.
Finally, on the seventeenth flight, they put me up against the unit’s Top Gun. He was a seasoned veteran of over 100 bombing missions over North Vietnam. He knew the plane well. He was a great pilot. We fired the Gatling gun and rockets. We flew high and low angle bomb runs. But when the mission was over, there was a new Top Gun. For the first time, a student won that hallowed honor.
Tom Wolfe wrote a book about fighter pilots called The Right Stuff. In that book, he talks about the ego of the fighter pilot. He said, “There is no ego in any other profession that rivals that of the fighter pilot except one -- the surgeon.” The week I won Top Gun, I was accepted to medical school.
I was on my way up the ladder of success, and The Attitude was out of control.
A three thousand year old book called Proverbs lists “the seven deadly sins.” What do you think is number one? Do you think it is murder? Sex? Stealing? No. It is pride. Proverbs is even more blunt when it says, “Pride disgusts the Lord.”
Going back to medical school after life-in-the-fast-lane was not easy. But I stayed with it. When I finished medical school, I graduated with the same honors that I won in the F-105 Thunderchief. The Attitude was re-born in medicine.
I specialized and became a pediatrician and went into practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But I am a man who likes doing things with my hands, so I went back to school again for a second specialty and became a surgeon. Then I went to London and Sydney, Australia doing international fellowships to become a surgical specialist in children and adult’s sinuses and airway problems.
Self-motivation permeated every thing I did. I had a history of a fiery temper. I was so self-focused that when things didn’t go my way, the result was anger. I am embarrassed to tell you that my children were afraid of their father.
I married my college sweetheart. She was, and is, a wonderful wife and mother. She always stood by me, even though I took her through some very tough experiences. I didn’t treat her very well. I was trying to be the best at everything I did, except, being a good husband and father. Essentially, she was a single parent and she spent a good part of her adult life as a very lonely woman.
While I was trekking through all my great adventures, she was quietly growing in her faith. One night we were lying in bed. I was reading medicine. She was reading the Bible. She turned to me and said, “Isn’t it wonderful how God has blessed you?”
“God blessed me? Who do you think stayed up all these night studying? Who do you think accomplished all these goals? God didn’t do that. I did.”
The Attitude was out of control. “Pride disgusts the Lord.”
Years later, I was a full colonel in the Air Force and I had become very successful designing surgical instruments. Many of those instruments would become the largest selling instruments in the world for specialized surgery. The manufacturing company knew I couldn’t receive any money from sales because I was in the military. So they gave me compensation by putting my name on the instruments. No matter where I went in the world, professionally, people knew my name.
But at home, The Attitude was irritating other people. Generals were advised that no one could make that much money for a company without taking a little something under the table. I knew the rules and I had not accepted anything. But an investigation was held. The outcome of that investigation was that I had not done anything wrong. But a mindset was implanted in the General’s staff that I was guilty.
Over the next two years, three more investigations were conducted. I was placed under house- arrest; I could only go to work and come home. No formal accusations were ever made, but my Air Force career was destroyed. When I should have been respected and at the top of my military and professional career, I was devastated and empty. I found myself screaming, “It is not my fault.” I felt crushed and alone. Hopelessly, I didn’t know where to turn.
Things were beyond wretched. The gods I had been worshipping abandoned me. What were those gods? I choose to call them the 5 P’s: Pride, Power, Prestige, Possessions and Passion. It was not the passion of sex. It was the passion of workaholism. I put my professional career above everything else, and this truly was a passionate affair.
These investigations obviously had a marked effect at home. To the casual observer, everything in my life looked great. Nice home, nice family, great job. It all looked good to my subordinates, peers and casual friends. But what was the truth? Life was in shambles. A disaster. Hopeless. There had to be more to life than being successful and being totally miserable.
My wife did the only thing she knew to do. She prayed for me. She knew I desperately needed God. But in my heart, I was convinced that God didn’t even know who I was. I felt He couldn’t possibly care about me.
Her prayers were answered in quiet whispers. Three friends, who didn’t know each other, independently approached me. The first friend said, “Dave, you have been doing some neat medical work. Let’s go together down to Mexico and see if we can’t help the poor rural people in the mountains?” I am an immense skeptic, I don’t say yes to anything without a thorough consideration. But I turned to that friend and said, “You bet, let’s go.”
The second friend came to me and said, “Dave, let’s go to a Christian men’s retreat.” Being the skeptic I was, I didn’t like that sort of spiritual activity, but I agreed to go. The third friend came up and said, “Dave, how about joining me in Bible study?” I wasn’t going to read that ancient book, and I wasn’t going to believe any of that “Jesus stuff” either. But I said, “Yes.” There is no question, the “yes’s” came out of hopelessness, despair, and profound emptiness.
I joined a small group of old fighter pilots for breakfast every week. We vowed NOT to talk about the typical male conversation topics… news, weather and sports! We talked about serious issues in our lives. These men were also skeptics struggling to find a meaningful faith. We tried to really share our inner concerns. But still, the changes to my faith growth were small. Perhaps it was because I could not give up the worship of my 5 P’s, or because of the enormous anger I refused to resolve toward my accusers.
I kept looking for a flash of lightning of spiritual awakening. But it never came. I wanted God to physically speak to me. But He never did. I wanted a billboard quality sign that would be so obvious to read. But it never happened. For two years I kept searching, but from a profoundly skeptical point of view. I so wanted to find God, but I was unwilling to let go of my hatred. Those men were wrong and I wanted justice!
But I kept at it, Bible study, prayer, the men’s group. But because my skepticism and unforgiving spirit were so great, my growth was slow. I struggled with the claims of Christ. Throughout the Bible, Jesus made statements that were very tough for me to deal with. For example, He says that He and God are One. To me, Jesus was always a “good guy,” and He said a lot of good things, but accepting that He was God -- that was too much for me.
C. S. Lewis was a prolific author and a man who spent much of his life not believing in God. He set out to prove that there was no God, but the end result of his research was that he became a follower of Jesus. In his book, Mere Christianity, he discusses that Jesus makes claims that are so staggering that you must choose one of two options. Jesus says that He and God are One, therefore 1) he is either the biggest fool, fraud and liar that ever walked the earth and deserves no attention, or, 2) what He says is the truth so you had better listen and pay attention!
A deeply personal event finally occurred. There was no thundering voice from God. The event only occurred within my heart. My men’s group wanted to return to the Christian men’s campground for a second retreat. At the camp, we were in a beautiful rock chapel in the hill country of Texas. It was an absolutely gorgeous setting, and I was truly seeking God’s wisdom.
We were singing and in the song God is asking the question, “Whom shall I send?” The singer answers, “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord?” Suddenly the words penetrated my heart and it was as though I was being called to answer to Jesus Himself. I felt as though I was standing all alone before Him. He only wanted to know one thing. What was most important in my life? Suddenly, I felt as if all I had worked so hard to achieve was truly meaningless. I felt barren and stripped of all my armor of fame and success.
It suddenly became clear. He didn’t care about my Top Gun, the instruments I had developed, or the fame. Those things weren’t important to Him. What was important was my having a truly genuine relationship with Him… to believe in Him and to trust in Him. He gave himself on the Cross as a sacrifice for my sins. He was now not only offering me love and forgiveness, but he was giving me the opportunity to know beyond all doubt that I could dwell in His presence throughout all eternity. All I had to do was to ask for the forgiveness He had already given, and to simply believe in Him. With that, I would be assured that I would have eternal life and fellowship with the Creator of the Universe.
For the first time in my life I was truly humbled, and I was physically brought to my knees. For the first time I recognized that I was the problem. I had wanted everyone else to change. I wanted them to see my way. Now I realized that I was the one who had to change. My self-centeredness was what had provoked all these problems. So, right then I asked Jesus to forgive me. I told Him that I believed in Him and I asked Him to enter my life. Then, I broke down and cried, and cried, and cried.
Slowly, peace, contentment and joy began to fill my life. Since that day my story only gets better. I am a changed man. My life has a purpose far greater than I had ever realized before. My life now centers on a daily walk with Him and it effects virtually every decision I make.
By becoming a believer in the Words of Christ, my troubles did not stop. You reap what you sow and I had sowed a lot of bad seeds. But now I really felt I had a new heart and a new spirit.
So, what did I do? I had to deal with my bitterness, and I had deep-seated bitterness. I had to learn about forgiveness and how to pray for my enemies. I had to learn love. The next step was to handle my anger. Anger in the home arose from self-centeredness. I had to learn to put the needs of others ahead of my own needs. Then I had to deal with The Attitude.
I reevaluated my priorities. I had to take the focus away from my own self-consuming interests. Was being the best above all others the most important thing? No, it wasn’t. I am an individual who pursues excellence. God has never asked me to give that up. But now, that excellence comes first in my faith and in my relationship with Him. Second, it comes in my family. Finally, with these two fields of excellence in proper perspective, I found even greater success in the workplace.
The outcome? My wife kept me. My children love their father and the changes were made before it was too late. Our relationship is strong and my children have come to know Christ and have accepted Him as leaders in their lives. And their spouses and their children know Christ.
And me? I am still growing in my faith, and that has given me a real genuine peace and a vital sense of meaning and purpose.
Let me summarize what I learned through all this with four points. But as I go through these, search how each relates to you:
#1 - God loves you as His child. He created you. He truly wants a deep friendship with you. God wants you to enjoy a relationship with Him. He is the answer to your search for that ultimate true friendship. He will fill the hole in your heart that all of us have had until we become His friend. I want to assure you that this friendship is what your heart has been searching for, for so long. God is there and He is moving in your life. I know that is true for me, and if you don’t believe it, how do you explain a color blind, seizure disordered kid getting to fly those sophisticated fighters?
#2 - God is holy (perfect in every way) but we are not perfect and therefore not holy. Sin is anything that keeps us from being holy or perfect like God. The Bible says that because we all have sin in our lives, none of us are perfect. We are all sinners. Because God is holy, He cannot have a friendship with sinners, so none of us can have any sort of relationship with God. Because of my pride and my worshipping of the 5 P’s (Pride, Power, Prestige, Possessions, and Passion), I was separated from Him, and that separation is the sin in my life.
In addition, the Bible says that because God is a just God, He must punish us for our sins. The Bible states that punishment for sins is eternal separation from God. Being at peace with God is not possible because we are separated from God. This separation is the "something wrong" that is at the root of our self-centeredness, loneliness, and empty feelings. When our is goal is to keep moving toward God, we keep moving away from Him through many acts of poor judgment, thoughts or attitudes. ALL of us do this, no matter how upright we may seem on the surface. If you search your own heart honestly, you already know this is true. This has caused a split between us and the One Who made us and loves us. Again, this split is called sin.
#3 - But, despite this, God still loves us more than we can ever know. He made a provision for us. He was willing to be punished in our place for all the things we do wrong. So God sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross in our place. Now, because Jesus has already been punished for your sins, God is now able to forgive you for your sins. But this forgiveness is a gift and isn't yours until you accept it. It's an option. You have the choice to accept it or not.
#4 - The only thing you have to do to receive God's Forgiveness, Love and Eternal Presence is ask for it. That’s the option that I finally selected. Simply admit to God that you know you have sin in your life, you know that you can't get rid of that sin on your own, but you know that Jesus can, and did. He became your savior by dying on the cross for the things you do wrong. By asking for God's Forgiveness and Love, you are assured of being eternally with Him. So right now, you are able to start a friendship with Him.
Dear God, I know that I’m a sinner.
I came to that point where I had to make a decision whether or not to invite Him into my heart. That is what all of us have to do. We have to make a decision, and that decision clearly is the most important decision of your life.
If you would like to make this decision, please consider saying my closing prayer with me. But remember, God is far more interested in your heart than your words. But if these words express the desire of your heart, I would encourage you to make this your prayer."
I know that I unable to get rid of my sin on my own.
I know that I deserve to be punished for my sin, but I also know that you love me so much that you sent Jesus to die for my sin.
I believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is enough to take away my sin. I believe in Him.
I ask for Your forgiveness, and thank you for already having forgiven me.
Thank you for loving me that much. And thank you for always being available to listen to me.
Lord, right now, I would like to invite you into my heart, and ask you to change my life, forever.
Please accept my humble prayer. Amen.
(P.S. Many of you have requested my testimony as an audio. I can either email or mail the CD to you. Contact me at email@example.com Others have requested the DVD (same testimony but you can watch the airplanes move(!). The audio/video clip is on http://www.execmin.org/LeadershipResources/winning/fullMessage.html. )
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