Air Force pilot Jim Walters was flying from Montgomery, Ala., to Panama City, Fla., when all four radios on his plane short-circuited. The rain was pouring, and a dense fog obscured the land below.
“There we were with 40 minutes of fuel left about 20 miles from an airport that’s fogged in,” he said. “That was probably as close as I ever came to jumping out of (an airplane) and having to explain to the colonel why I just crashed a multimillion-dollar jet for being an idiot and flying in the rain.”
Drops of rain beat a tiny hole in the plane’s nosecone, making it bigger and allowing water to collect around delicate electronics.
With no navigation system in place, many in Walters’ place might have started praying.
But the South Jeffco resident, now a local minister, focused instead on the basic tools he learned in flight school. He turned back to Montgomery, finding the city the same way aviator Charles Lindbergh found Paris during his famous transatlantic flight, he said.
“You can have a multi-engine high-tech aircraft with four radios, and it boils down to the compass and the clock … and basic skills you learn as a student pilot to get the plane back,” he said.
Walters, now senior pastor at Bear Valley Church in Lakewood, has a lifetime of aviation stories at his command. And a few of them appear in his new book, “When Faith Takes Flight,” a Christian primer that uses flying metaphors to explain tenets of the religion.
“Everybody likes to hear flying stories,” he said. “Everybody has a flying story.”
From experiencing frightening turbulence to the heartburn of lost baggage, most people have at least a few lasting memories involving air travel.
“The flight illustrations are so plentiful that I can explain all the things about basic faith and God using airplane metaphors, like lift and weight and drag and thrust.”
Though Walters’ stories could fill volumes, his most interesting could be the one explaining his curious transition from fighter pilot to man of faith.
“My father flew gliders in the Second World War, in those big airborne invasions in Europe,” he said.
Walters’ father took up flying when he was a young boy. On one trip he ditched school to fly with his dad to San Antonio.
“That was the day I decided I did not want to be a cowboy or fireman anymore,” he said. “Those were great things to be, but I wanted to fly airplanes.”
He became a pilot at a very young age and, like his father, ended up in the armed forces.
“At the end of my college days, we had a war going on in Vietnam. And the Air Force was looking for pilots.”
Walters learned to pilot fighter jets and fire missiles. But, in a twist of fate, he arrived in Vietnam with nothing to do.
“The war had just ended,” he said. “I got there after 10 years of training. … We’re just sitting there. And it’s boring.”
Instead of going on missions, Walters and other pilots flew practice sessions twice a week to keep their skills sharp. Amid the monotony of being far from home with little to do, the practice sessions offered him an opportunity to find himself.
“For about an hour and 45 minutes, I knew who I was. I would strap on this supersonic jet fighter and put my navigator in the back seat. And we’d go launching off.
“The other 22 hours and 15 minutes of the day, I’m going, ‘Is this all there is? Who am I? Why am I here?’ ”
Despite the letdown he felt at the time, Walters is grateful he avoided combat. He isn’t a violent man, and as much as he loved to fly, he wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of dropping bombs.
“We were really living on the patriotism of our fathers, who had won the Second World War and defeated Hitler,” he said. “The world had really changed, and it wasn’t black and white anymore. It was very gray.”
And moral dilemmas aside, he’s thankful he returned home in one piece.
“For one thing, I could’ve been John McCain’s roommate,” he said. “Our unit flew over Hanoi all the time.”
Walters’ break came not long after he applied for an instructor position within the Air Force. He was initially denied, he said, but after a pivotal moment of prayer, he received a transfer.
“ ‘Lieutenant, I’ve got some bad news for you,’ ” he recalls an officer saying. “ ‘You’re going back to Lubbock, Texas, to be an instructor pilot. … I don’t know who did this to you.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I think I do. I think this is God.’ ”
While stationed in Texas, Walters began working with a missionary group. He suddenly had his sights set on a much different career path.
“I came back to the states a very different person than when I left,” said Walters, who was an atheist before being deployed in Vietnam. “I actually left the Air Force to go into ministry. … But I never quit flying planes.”
Walters regularly takes one of two single-engine Cessna planes for a spin at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. But he’s more likely to be found in his office at the church.
“I love airplanes, and I love people. As a pastor, I get to love a lot of people,” he said. “Pastors do a whole lot more than preach. That’s just Sunday morning for 30 minutes. I’m a personal support for anybody going through a divorce, a cancer, a death, a marriage, a baptism, a baby being born — you name it.”
Walters hopes to eventually sell 5,000 copies of his self-published book. In the first six weeks after printing, about 1,000 of the original 1,500 were already sold, he said.
If the book represents anything besides faith, it’s the unexpected turns people encounter in the journey through existence.
“Life is wild out there,” he said.
“When Faith Takes Flight: Lessons From 30,000 Feet,” by Jim Walters; 202 pages, paperback; $12; available at www.whenfaithtakesflight.com.