The Separation of Church and Sky

Video aboard Qatar Airways.   Author’s photo.

June 26, 2017

ON SUNDAY, an AirAsia X flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur suffered a malfunction in one of its Rolls-Royce engines, causing the plane to vibrate and shake seriously enough that the crew of the widebody Airbus A330 turned around and headed back to Perth. Reportedly, the flight’s captain twice instructed frightened passengers to pray.

AirAsia X is the long-haul arm of the hugely popular AirAsia, one of the world’s biggest budget carriers.

Now, before giving this guy a pitchfork and tail, let’s take a step back. Almost every story involving an airline incident tends to get distorted as it filters through the media, and there’s a lot here that’s missing. Do we know for absolutely sure that it was the captain who told his already-afraid occupants to pray, or was it a male member of the cabin crew? Passengers often confuse one for the other, when it’s just a disconnected voice coming over the cabin speakers. And what was the tone and inflection? Was it said ominously, or was it a comment made offhand, casually, colloquially, along the lines of a quick, “god bless you.” There’s a cultural context too, that may have played a role. AirAsia X’s employees are a diverse group from a wide range of nations and backgrounds. For some, a simple, salutatory religious invocation is nothing to get worked up about. And there are plenty of religious people out there who’d ask, So what? What’s wrong with asking for prayer? That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless or the pilots hapless.

All of that aside, it probably wasn’t the brightest thing to have said. Flyers are always nervous on some level, and the last thing many of them want to hear, when a plane is vibrating and shaking violently, is to hear the pilots calling for help from the heavens.

At issue here too are the protocols of crew-to-passenger communications. There are company guidelines for acceptable tone and content. You’ll normally find stipulations against discussions of politics, religion, and anything derogatory. Sayeth your General Operations Manual, chapter seven, verse 12: Jokes, off-color innuendo, or slurs of any kind are forbidden. Thou shalt maintain only the most generic and nonconfrontational rapport, lest the chief pilot summon and smite thee. (I strongly advocate the recitation of college football scores be added to the list of prohibitions, but that’s just me.)

The rules also advise against using potentially frightening language or alarming buzzwords. Taken from context, the invocation of something like “windshear” or “icing” is liable to have passengers weeping. One airline I worked for had a policy banning any announcement that began with the words, “Your attention please.” (“Your attention please. Southeastern Nebraska Tech has just kicked a last minute field goal to pull ahead of North Southwestern Methodist State, 31-28.”)

In the end, though, it mostly comes down to common sense. For the most part, what to say, or to not say, is left at the crewmember’s discretion. And, let’s face it, some are better at this than others. Pilots, in particular, aren’t always eloquent or articulate on the mic. About the only defense I have for this — albeit, perhaps, a strong one — is that our expertise is in operating the aircraft, not in making chit-chat. Pilots have more important things on their minds than the rulebook technicalities of PA announcements. It’s not the sort of thing one rehearses during simulator training. Engine fires and hydraulic failures are what a pilot worries about, not whether his microphone demeanor is meeting the small print of some obscure page in one of his manuals.


This isn’t the first time the separation of church and sky has been an issue. In 2005, an American Airlines captain faced disciplinary action after evangelizing to passengers on a flight between Los Angeles and New York. The captain, who had recently returned from a missionary trip to Central America, asked Christian fliers to identify themselves by raising their hands, then urged them to engage their non-Christian seatmates in a discussion about faith. The overtones of an us-versus-them religious provocation by a pilot need no elaboration, and reportedly several passengers were in the midst of making mobile phone farewells to loved ones before things settled down. The mood was apparently so tense that when the captain asked non-Christians to identify themselves, only a few brave souls (sorry) nervously raised their hands.

Imagine, for a second, if the captain of a Pakistan International or Royal Jordanian flight had done the same thing, swapping “Christian” for “Muslim,” somewhere over the Atlantic en route to New York. That plane, surrounded by a phalanx of scrambled fighter jets within minutes, would not have been allowed within 500 miles of U.S. airspace.

But it was probably a bad idea to read too much into the man’s attempts at transcontinental soul-saving. And for what it’s worth, he eventually broadcast an apology, and appeared, well, repentant, as passengers disembarked. The AirAsia captain, meanwhile, is likely sitting at home and wondering what all the fuss is about.

At Alaska Airlines, for many years, a bit of inflight Bible study was an in-house tradition. High over the clouds, passengers at Alaska would come across the following heavenly chatter:

“I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name
O most high.”
– Psalm 9:2

No, that’s not your captain speaking, it’s your breakfast tray, which included an inspirational notecard with a snippet from the Old Testament — a company custom since dating to the 1970s.

“I will praise God’s name in song, and glorify Him with thanksgiving.”

Hey, and for an upgrade I’ll baptize myself in the lav. For better or worse, I figure there’s no shortage of Americans willing to hear out a prayer or two if it means some tastier food and a wider seat.

United Airlines, for its part, used to stock copies of Gideon’s Bible in its magazine racks. Carriers in some parts of the world include prayer sections onboard their aircraft, and the in-seat video screens on those from predominantly Muslim countries will show a qibla compass, giving real-time distance and direction to Mecca.

Malaysia Airlines prayer card.   Author’s collection.


Note: Several readers have asked why the AirAsia pilots didn’t shut down the malfunctioning engine that was causing the vibration. In fact they probably did. Assuming they followed some pretty basic steps, the engine would’ve been shut down in pretty quick order. If the shaking continued, that’s probably because the engine kept “windmilling,” which is to say its rotating parts, particularly the large fan in the front, however now imbalanced due to the loss of one of more blades (or whatever exactly was wrong with it), continued to spin because of the force of oncoming air. If it’s damaged enough, an engine will simply seize and refuse to turn, but it’s possible this malfunction wasn’t severe enough for that to happen. Air resistance will keep it spinning, and there’s really no way to stop this.


Portions of this post ran previously in the magazine Salon.

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32 Responses to “The Separation of Church and Sky”
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  1. Art Knight says:

    Thank you DarylDuaks, for clearly stating what needed to be said. Not only was it authentic Frontier Jibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.

  2. Art Knight says:

    Can anyone post a link to “The Captain COMMANDING the passengers to pray?”

    I didn’t think so.

  3. Kevin Brady says:

    With everything that’s going on lately, I think the whole world needs a prayer, just not from your pilot after the plane is shaking – Interesting about the windmilling – I never thought of that in a jet – Guess you can’t feather a jet engines turbine blades.

  4. Jonny says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Another great piece of wordsmithery, I have to admit when I saw the title I thought, here we go, bash the “believers” but it was charming and witty, what with the King James English. I do have a question for you. What would you do in a situation in which you were no longer certain that your machine and skills would be enough to get you and your passengers out of a serious pickle? Would you say “no thanks God, I’ve got this”? I don’t mean this to be trite but are pilots so trained that you become as emotionless as the machine you are operating? Or, faced with extremis would you at least whisper a prayer that you would have a clear mind and peace while executing a resolution, or “God I hope the engine mounts are torqued properly so if it falls off it wont take with it the entire wing”?

    Maybe this pilot perceived they were at that point and in their humanness uttered what was said. With hind site it was not a good idea, on the other hand, is asking passengers to pray any more alarming than “prepare for a crash landing in the water”?

    I think of Captain Haines with his disabled DC10, did he say a little prayer in his head, would you blame him if he did?


    • bobbi says:

      ” I hope the engine mounts are torqued properly so if it falls off it wont take with it the entire wing” ==> My snowblower has “shear bolts” for personal and equipment safety should a “jam” occur.

      Are GE and Boeing so “DUH” they’d overlook such an obvious safety mechanism as “shear bolts” attaching engine to wing?

      Yet, they managed double, triple and quadruple redundancy for FAR less crucial systems.

    • bobbi says:

      “Captain Haines with his disabled DC10…” ==> …probably too busy saving lives and property to spend time “god bothering”.

      Was Dennis Fitch’s presence somehow a “prayer answered?”

      Maybe you attribute the insightful and skillful mustering of knowledge, technical capability, skill and CRM to divine intervention?

      Me, neither.

  5. Francis Bwikizo says:

    Not the best communication from the man in charge! By default, there’s supernatural power beyond humanity to which different sets of people have different beliefs and approach. By calling upon such powers (a miracle to happen),by a pilot,the man in the saviour’s seat then only worsens the already worse situation. It’s like a doctor referring a patient to church for a medical examination.
    Issues of faith and religion are among the most sophisticated human values and whoever doesn’t appreciate the diversity involved, pays the price.
    A pilot turning a preacher onboard is totally out of profession! And an airline printing prayers on trays, scares the hell out of the already nervous flyers. And bibles on board may only increases rift between believers, though it’d be a brilliant idea. Matters of faith and religion red no adverts, everyone knows where to go and when.

    • bobbi says:

      “most sophisticated human values” ==> FALSE.

      Religion and faith are the most PRIMITIVE responses to threats from unfamiliar sources.

    • bobbi says:

      “Matters of faith and religion red no adverts” ==> Laughably false.

      Televangelists on radio, tv, internet and billboard venues endlessly advertise for converts and funds.

  6. Ben says:

    Love the levelheadedness of this article. I do agree this was certainly not the smartest thing to say in the context of the situation.

  7. c.bryan says:

    Good article, Patrick. Just watched movie ‘The Rules Don’t Apply,’ a film about Howard Hughes. In the film is a Lockheed Constellation (actually being taxied, I think – perhaps towed). Anyway, it brought back memories of that wonderful plane, and how the ashtray lids used to jingle from the congenital vibrations.
    I agree with your supposition an appeal to ‘heaven’ perhaps was meant to calm the traveling public. The frequency surely suggested a windmilling engine; un=nerving, but not serious. And all those folk are positive ‘Haven’ answered them. And, they probably swapped out the engine.
    Always enjoy your prose. Thanks.

  8. Here’s the CNN video of what happened, along with the caption:

    The video clearly has a man, likely the captain or first officer, saying that their survival depends on the passengers’ cooperation. This is followed by the instruction (command) to pray.

    While I can admit it’s impossible to determine which member of the crew gave the order, the person who did so had the power to make the announcement without being reprimanded. This leaves us with the realization that the Powers that Be gave an announcement that was meant to generate fear, implying that survival was out of the hands of the pilots.

    I thought a good captain would realize that the kinds of passengers who would pray were already doing so without his orders. He might consider saying what he can to alleviate fear, in part by explaining what he was doing to help the situation.

  9. Rod says:

    My two cents: I’ve been wondering about this one for days now. Even given a prayer-prone cultural context, it seems to me that asking the passengers to pray for the flight’s safety is a recipe for maximizing hysteria. I have to believe this please-pray-for-this-flight story simply isn’t true.
    Was on a rapidly descending 747 once that had it’s speed breaks out to increase rate of descent but not airspeed. It was shaking like the videos of this A330, but a crew-member came on and explained this was due to the speed brakes. Nobody flipped.
    Regarding vibration, Patrick, is it not the case that an engine producing so much vibration that it poses a threat to the rest of the airframe is designed to shear off and fall away from the aircraft?

    • Art Knight says:

      I thought the bolts were meant to shear on impact, not due to vibration in the air. Dropping an 8,000 lb. engine on an innocent bystander just seems…rude.

    • Art Knight says:

      I agree it sounds like “fake news.” The person who linked to the video says he “…commanded [everyone] to pray,” but it does not appear on the recording.

  10. Cam Beck says:

    “Separation of Church and sky” Great title, Patrick!

    Fascinating piece and you’ve changed my view of the event to a more forgiving one. Still….

    The incidents of pilots “going God” w/their passengers strains credulity. Idiots!

    You touched tangentially on “souls.” When a plane is in trouble, ATC asks for the number of “souls” aboard. My understanding is that by so asking, ATC is getting the FULL number of humans aboard: passengers, crew, babies on laps, pilots on jump seats. If my understanding is faulty, please feel free to so inform.

    Thank you again for great reading from “the front office.” -c

  11. Kb says:

    Why wasn’t the engine shut down and why didn’t they put down at the nearest adequate airport.
    Hope the captain gets a good reprimand because of his poor judgment

    • Paul says:

      All reporting to date indicates the engine was shut down but continued “windmilling”.

      Please see my earlier post about alternative airports.

      As I said in my earlier post, none of us were in the cockpit, so it’s premature to start apportioning blame for the pilot’s decisions.

  12. Stephen Stapleton says:

    I am rather blasé about turbulence and have never really worried about something really going wrong on a plane. I know things do go horribly wrong, but people get polio, too, and have spent any portion of my life worrying about either. However, I have to say, if the plane was shaking like the video shows AND anyone from the flight crew asked via the announcement system for me to pray, let alone twice, I have to say, I would be worried. Really worried.

    I am glad everyone on the plane got back to the airport without injury and perhaps this will widen my area of nonchalance with regard to minor mechanical issues while flying, but I do suggest asking people to pray while the plane is shaking like an unbalanced washing machine seems all but guaranteed to increase the likelihood of panic. As Patrick suggests, pilots are not chosen for their PR skills, but still, the lack of common sense here seems beyond reason.

  13. Kathy says:

    When I flew El Al from JFK to Tel Aviv in the mid-80s, a number of obviously observant Orthodox passengers assembled a minyan (prayer quorum)and tried to get every male passenger on the 747 to join in.

    So long as people ask nicely and don’t force anyone, then what the hell.

  14. Mark says:

    Cute title, and it’s amazing that praying is such an issue. My take is that the announcement was meant to calm nerves. It would not offend me, I’ve prayed on a bumpy flight.

    “God is my copilot” probably was first uttered on an airplane.

    • bobbi says:

      ““God is my copilot” ” ==> I’d rather have a trained, competent, well-practiced “Pilot Monitoring” staffing the right-hand Barco-lounger up there in “Row Zero”

  15. Jennifer Moore says:

    Thank you. Several questions. One, there have been several A330 Rolls Royce/Trent engine breakdowns recently, 2 that broke through the engine casing. Is there a systemic problem here? I will be taking an A330 flight this summer, and would hope that preventive measures would have been taken asap. Are these engines safe? #2. Air Asia flew down the Western Australian coast for a couple of hours. Why not land at a military base or other airport before Perth–those shaking videos are scary and waiting to reach Perth seems a big risk. #3. I’m an atheist except during turbulence, but I sure as heck want my pilots to be calling up their A game and not God if something goes wrong. Without a strong faith, I would have become hysterical, not calmed. I have over 10 flights in the next two month I have to take. I sure hope all goes well, God and the FAA willing.

    • Paul says:

      There’s really only one alternative to Perth and that’s Learmonth, which is a part-time air force facility with a small civil apron and terminal for local service only.There’s been a lot of discussion (both informed and uninformed) as to why this flight crew decided to return to Perth rather than go the small distance to Learmonth.

      None of us were in the cockpit at the time, so I won’t presume to comment as to whether or not that was the correct decision. It will no doubt be a major factor in the ATSB’s investigation.

    • Rais says:

      If the pilot judged that the plane was in a fit condition to reach Perth, and a Malaysian pilot asking people to pray is culturally normal, Learmonth would be a really bad choice because of the lack of facilities there and the impossibility of ferrying the passengers out. After Learmonth the only city before Perth in a straight line is Geraldton which is served by small turbo props. The airfield wouldn’t take the Air Asia plane.

  16. SirWired says:

    Just curious; if one engine is so bad off that the flight’s getting turned around, why leave that engine running?

    I’m sure there’s an excellent reason (like “Despite the awful sounds it was making, there was no danger it was going to do something catastrophic to the aircraft; at worst, it’d have to be shut down later.”)

    • Patrick says:

      Assuming it was the engine causing the vibration, and assuming they followed some pretty basic steps, the engine would’ve been shut down in pretty quick order. If the vibrations continued, that’s probably because the engine kept “windmilling,” which is to say its rotating parts, particularly the large fan in the front, however now imbalanced, continued to spin because of the force of oncoming air. If it’s damaged enough, an engine will simply seize and refuse to turn, but it’s possible this malfunction wasn’t severe enough for that to happen.

      • Larry says:

        Thank you again for a calm, rational explanation of an aviation news item. Once I read about this incident, I started counting the days until I could read your post.

    • Speed says:

      From Flightglobal …

      passengers and cabin crew reported a loud explosion from the left-hand engine, followed by strong vibrations and shudders.

      This doesn’t necessarily mean that the “vibrations and shudders” lasted for any length of time. I try not to read reports in the popular press. Maybe they did. I understand there’s video.

      The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is expected to launch an investigation into the event, with a particular focus on the engine and the actions of the crew.
      [ … ]
      It is the second time an AirAsia X A330 has been forced to divert whilst operating a flight from Australia in as many years. The last occurrence was in August 2016, when 9M-XXD diverted to Alice Springs while enroute from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur due to an in-flight engine shutdown that has been linked to a fracture in one of the engines’ oil pump drive shafts.

      Again, we don’t know much but my guess is that even after shutdown the engine will windmill and if the rotating components were unbalanced there would be some (maybe lots of) shake or vibration.

      Perhaps Patrick can chime in on how fast a modern fanjet will windmill after shutdown.

    • Patrick says:

      See my reply to the other comment.