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A Different Flight Path

by Harry Titcombe and Patricia Linson on July 3, 2012 in Articles

Inside the Air Force building in Dauphin, Manitoba, I removed my hat and tucked it under my arm. I marched down the hall to the interview room, entered, stood at attention, and saluted the officers on the investigative panel. For what felt like hours, I answered question after question as levelly as I could.

As an eighteen-year-old pilot trainee, I had already completed ten weeks of basic and flight training. World War II raged. Nightly radio reports and newsreels displayed the devastation that German bombers rained on the streets of London. As soon as the Canadian government called for airmen, my friends and I enlisted. With ninety-six hours of actual flying time under my belt, I envisioned myself in a fighter plane shooting down German bombers over London and gaining hero status both at home and abroad.

“You’re grounded,” the lead officer of the panel concluded. “You will be reassigned.”

With those words, the officer shot down my dream of being a hero.

Maintaining the same stiff upper lip as my British father, I snapped to attention, saluted the officers, did an about-face, and exited.

A “Suspicious Oddball”

The previous week had been a nightmare. After doing well in boot camp and elementary flight instruction, I expected instrument flight to be a breeze. It wasn’t. Just when I felt I was getting the hang of it, a practice flight with an instructor put my career with the Air Force in jeopardy. That day, another pilot trainee and I both took off from parallel runways. Within minutes my instructor demanded control of our aircraft and returned us to the airstrip.

Once on the ground, the instructor exploded. “Titcombe, you put our lives in danger by allowing your craft to drift into the flight path of the other plane. Were you even aware of its location? That is the last time I will go up with you!”

After walking back to my barracks, I slumped on my bunk. My mind replayed the incident as I stared at the headgear in my hands. How will this incident affect my future with my unit? I wondered. What will my girl, Jeanie, think?

Lost in my worries, I didn’t hear footsteps behind me, so I almost jumped when a hand touched my shoulder. Holmes, a friend from my unit, saw me return early from the practice run and came to discover what happened. After Holmes pried the story from me, a few moments of silence passed.

Peering into my face, Holmes said, “Titcombe, whatever the outcome is, I want you to know that the world needs more guys like you and fewer like me. You aren’t afraid to live out and share your Christian faith.”

Holmes’s words were small comfort, however, as that week progressed. I faced a string of physical and psychological tests, followed by several interviews. The most painful had been this last one. The officers criticized my behavior, labeling me a “suspicious oddball.” I didn’t drink, smoke, cuss, or carouse like others in my unit. What was worse, I loved classical music. One officer accused me of cowardice; of intentionally messing up to avoid facing enemy planes.

A Catalyst for Action

The panorama of episodes clicked through my mind in the seconds it took me to retreat down the hall and exit the building. Outside, I paused to replace my hat. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of gold braid on a Wing Commander’s uniform. I pivoted, snapped to attention, and saluted.

“At ease, son,” the Wing Commander said. Pointing at a pile of boards a few yards away, the officer said, “Let’s sit and talk a bit.”

I followed and sat next to him, wondering what turn this conversation would take. The officer’s name tag read "Gregson, Chaplain."

“I was at your interview today. Heard every word. The panel’s decision today is probably a disappointment to you, but I believe that our Lord has special plans for you.” Wing Commander Gregson paused to pull a small Bible from his pocket. “I’d like to share a couple of verses that have meant a lot to me over the years. Then let’s pray together, all right?”

I blinked back tears. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Commander Gregson opened his Bible and thumbed the pages until he came to the book of Jeremiah. He took me to chapter 29, which contains a letter the prophet wrote from Jerusalem to his people who were facing decades of exile in a foreign city. To the captives the situation looked hopeless, just like mine did to me. Yet through Jeremiah, God told the dismayed people that their trauma wasn’t the end.

“Read several verses,” Gregson said, “starting with verse 11.”

I nodded and read aloud. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” A lump rose in my throat. I swallowed so I could continue. “‘Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29: 12–14).

The words reminded me that God always has good plans for those who desire, as I did, to follow Him. I wanted to make Him known to the men around me, both in words and actions. I paused and reread the verses silently, making a mental note of the reference.

Our heads bowed, Gregson and I prayed together, asking for God’s direction and blessing on my life. The Wing Commander stood, shook my hand, and strode across the field.

Several weeks later, I received my reassignment: orders to report to the University of New Brunswick to learn radar technology. After completing my training and marrying my sweetheart, I became a radar instructor in Clinton, Ontario. For the next two years, with Jean beside me, I met with dozens of airmen at a pastor’s home for Bible discussions and Christian fellowship. The verses in Jeremiah 29, at first just an encouragement to me, became a call for action to take God’s Word into the world.

By the end of World War II, Harry Titcombe had served with his radar unit in both Canada and England for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was one of only a handful of men from his original unit of sixty-eight to survive the war. After earning a ThM from DTS in 1950, he pastored for five years and then, because of family concerns, turned down further pastorates and invested in a hearing aid business. For the past forty-five years he has continued the biblical teaching ministry he began as a radar instructor. Jean has gone on to be with the Lord, but you can find 89-year-old Harry on Sunday mornings co-teaching in Plymouth, Minnesota, at Wayzata Evangelical Free Church. His daughter, Patricia Linson, assisted him in writing this article.

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