Culture

On September 11, Another Pilot Died in His Seat

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I ironed Steve’s shirt and made sure that all of the parts of his uniform were ready. Steve packed his airline kit bag and double-checked that he had all of the necessary maps and publications. He loaded the car and we settled in to spend the evening doing family stuff with the kids. Strangely, however, he never received a phone call from American Airlines confirming that the trip assigned to him via the computer had been finalized and locked in as his trip. … So that evening, back into the closet went the airline uniform and instead, we prepared Steve’s Navy uniform. The unexpected day off from the airlines provided an opportunity to spend time working on the Navy base. …

I can only speculate about what was going on in the McGuinness household that evening. Their lives looked so much like ours on paper: military background, airline pilot, active in the church. I picture them going through the same pre-trip rituals that Steve and I performed. I’m sure Tom was in bed early; he would have to be at Logan early on Tuesday morning to pre-flight the airplane for Flight 11 to Los Angeles. Like us, they would sleep the sleep of the unaware.

Unaware that Monday night would be their final family night together.

Unaware that Tom’s 42nd birthday would be his last.

Unaware that life, as they knew it, was about to change — forever.

— Megan Scheibner

The next morning, September 11, 2001, Mohammed Atta slashed Tom McGuinness’ throat in the cockpit of Flight 11 and piloted the plane into the the World Trade Center.

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September 11th must have been an especially agonizing day for airline pilots and their families. Many lost friends and colleagues, and certainly, every one of them must have grasped the profound truth that their family had been spared the unimaginable grief other families experienced that day. Perhaps no family understood that feeling more than Steve and Megan Scheibner. Steve, a pilot and pastor of a church plant in Maine, was originally scheduled to fly American Airlines flight 11 to Los Angeles that day but was bumped the night before by Tom McGuinness, who ultimately ended up in the cockpit on that cloudless Tuesday morning. Megan tells their story in her book, In My Seat: A Pilot’s True Story from September 10th-11th.

When the events of 9/11 began to unfold, Steve and Megan didn’t initially make the connection that Steve had packed his bags the night before for the flight destined to crash into the World Trade Center. Throughout the day their phones rang nonstop as friends and church members called, terrified that their pastor had been one of the pilots on the Boston flight. Steve asked Megan to call church members to gather at their home that evening for an impromptu prayer meeting.

Megan, who homeschooled the family’s eight children, had difficulty processing what was happening:

Our older children were glued to the TV and had so many questions. But for the younger children, the needs of the day continued. There were diapers to be changed, meals to be made, naps to be provided — all the normal parts of life with children. I couldn’t escape the realization that other wives, just like me, were dealing with those same normal needs, all the while facing the reality that their husbands had been on those planes.

She was thankful for the distractions.

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After Steve arrived home and before the rest of the church arrived, Steve decided to check the website of American Airlines to see who had been flying the plane out of Boston. He still hadn’t made the connection, but when he pulled up the flight, Steve saw that where his name had been the night before — listed as the pilot of the flight from which he was later bumped — his name had been replaced with Sequence Failed Continuity. That’s aviation code for a flight not arriving at its destination. In an interview with Janet Parshall, Steve said, “It’s been a dozen years and words still can’t describe the feeling at that moment. I still can’t put it into words. It’s just a hollow, empty, sad feeling all mixed in together.”

Like many families, the Scheibners’ lives changed forever on 9/11. Megan said,

The events of September 11th changed my husband. Steve had been faithfully serving God before the hijackings and he continued to serve Him at the church afterward, yet he was different. He wasn’t satisfied with the status quo anymore. … God used the events of September 11th to change Steve Scheibner from a man contentedly doing His will as a church planter in a small town in Maine, into a man consumed by the urgency of reaching a nation for Christ.

Steve said, “I need to live like I’m living on borrowed time, because I am. I can look and see my smoking hole and it was on national TV. I saw where I should have died, but I didn’t. And now, there’s an obligation that comes with that. I’ve got to live my days with a sense of urgency.”

The Scheibners believe that Tom’s death —  in Steve’s seat — provides a modern-day picture of substitutionary atonement. Steve shared that picture in a short documentary (produced by his son) in which Steve said he believes that “somebody died in my place not once, but twice.”

Steve said he was qualified to sit in the pilot’s seat of Flight 11 and should have been in that seat on September 11th. But although Tom died in his place that day, Tom didn’t die for Steve’s sins.

God sent his own Son to die for my sins. Jesus Christ was the other one who died in my place and he hung and he bled and he suffered on a cross to pay a price for me that I wasn’t qualified to pay. I couldn’t have hung on the cross. I didn’t have the same qualifications. So one guy sat in a seat that I should have sat in, the other hung and bled on a cross. One is far more significant than the other. That’s not to trivialize what happened to Tom, it’s to elevate and glorify what God did for me and mankind on the cross.

Steve is describing a deep spiritual truth. God put forward Christ as a propitiation — a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath — so that those who believe in Christ would be declared righteous (Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2). God laid on Jesus all of our sin (Isa. 53:6) and he took our punishment — our seat.

The video went viral on YouTube — it has been viewed over two million times and has been shown in over 5000 churches. Steve has shared his experiences with audiences hundreds of times, speaking at 120 events last year.

In a recent interview Steve said that he tells people about Tom McGuinness when he speaks: “Tom had a solid testimony of faith in Jesus Christ and on September 11, 2001 Tom went straight from that bloody cockpit right into the arms of the Lord because of the shed blood of Christ and the promises of God.”

He said that he hears relief in people’s voices when he tells them that.

[See the story of Cheryl McGuinness, Tom’s wife, below.]

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