Interview with Squadron Leader Alf Jonas
Huge seas between Australia and Antarctica in January 1997 had caused the global race for solo yachtsmen to go sour. Now hundreds of millions of viewers across the world were watching the sensational rescue effort. Responding to distress signals, a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) operation quickly located the Frenchman Thiérry Dubois, and dropped a life-raft, supplies and a radio to him. The vessel HMAS Adelaide, five days away, was ordered to make for the site. Meanwhile, RAAF crews in Orion aircraft, working in staggered shifts because of the large distance from the coast, kept vigil over Dubois. They also watched over the upturned hull of another racer, that of the Englishman Tony Bullimore, not knowing whether he was alive or dead.
Bullimore became an international celebrity when, at the very last moment, just as the Adelaide arrived, he popped out from under his hull. He had survived for four days and nights in his freezing, watery prison.
England’s Queen and France’s President were among the many senders of the accolades which poured in from around the world, praising the efficiency and courage of the rescue team. The person overseeing and co-ordinating the participating crews was the man I was talking to now, Squadron Leader Alf Jonas.
Alf, who has a university degree in physics and lives in Adelaide, South Australia, is a keen supporter of creation ministry. He told me that although he currently works for the RAAF as an experimental test pilot, at the time of the famous rescue he had 103 men under his command.1
Alf said that most of his flying had been with the planes used in this widely publicised rescue, the American-made Lockheed Orion anti-submarine patrol aircraft. The four-engined turbo-prop Orion, which can accommodate up to 20 people, is also used by the U.S. Navy. Alf said that while doing joint exercises with the Americans, RAAF crew ‘are often confused with Navy, but here it’s the Air Force that uses the Orions.’
‘Because it’s designed to find and destroy submarines, relatively small objects hiding in a big sea,’ said Alf, ‘the Orion is an ideal plane for maritime search-and-rescue missions.’ The Orion’s radar can only find things on the surface, of course, but it is also equipped with something known as the MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector). ‘The thing sticking out the back of the plane, people call it a “stinger” because of the way it looks — that’s the MAD’, said Alf. ‘It detects minute changes in the earth’s magnetic field, such as when there’s a big lump of metal in the way.’ ‘Wouldn’t it show wrecked ships, too?’, I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘We have on our charts a log of known wrecks, to avoid wasting time searching for a “submarine” that isn’t.’
Alf said the Orion carried other equipment for hunting subs. ‘One of the best is what we jokingly call the “Mark 1 Eyeball” — a human observer. It’s amazing how often you’ll see a sub, cruising along under the waves, thinking it’s hidden. Because we have a tremendous computer in our brain, you can actually differentiate between wave and squall lines, and an object cutting through those, better than any man-made computer. Of course, you can’t see through cloud or at night. That’s why we also have infrared sensing equipment.
‘Then there are the listening devices. We drop what is called a sonobuoy. When it hits the water, a little microphone pops out the bottom, and tracks the submarine using sound waves. The information is radioed back to the plane. We can easily drop up to 30 at a time, so we can “scan” a large area of the ocean.’
Although Alf has not been involved in anything more hostile than the occasional Cold War confrontation, the Orion has a range of equipment to enable it to destroy the submarines it locates. Once it drops its ‘smart’ torpedoes, these home in on the sub. It is also armed with Harpoon missiles, for air-to-surface attack.
In Alf’s early years on Orions, his crew’s navigator, Andrew, was a Christian. Alf said, ‘On long flights, when his tasks were done, Andrew would break open a Bible. We all had a nervous laugh about that — hey, this is our navigator — is that how he navigates, on a wing and a prayer?’ In 1989, Alf and his wife Bronwen were invited to Andrew’s wedding. ‘I did not have a Christian upbringing,’ said Alf, ‘and had never been to a real Christian wedding before. We saw something special in this service, something so completely different, that we talked about it afterwards and decided we would try going to church.
‘We chose a church in our area just from the outside appearance of the building, and went to their Sunday service. Following a baptism, which really spoke to my heart, the pastor preached. He happened to be working through the book of Revelation, the “fire and brimstone” section. We were both moved; I was actually fairly shaken. During the week, someone from the church visited me, and was fairly direct about asking me where I stood with God. But I knew that if I was to believe what Christianity taught, I had to believe all of it. And there was this problem with Genesis and how it conflicted with my university science training — creation in six days and all that.
‘The next Sunday, I was still too scared from the previous message to go back to church, but Bronwen did. She happened to be sitting next to two people from the local [CMI] Support Group [Editor’s note July 2014: now called Friends of CMI group],2 who had arranged for a seminar there the following weekend on creation/evolution. Bronwen asked them for a brochure, knowing that I’d be interested. Well, I sat through all the sessions, and bought some books. I was halfway through The Lie: Evolution, and it opened up a whole new world for me. No one had told me about creation; I could see myself standing on that block of stone, like the illustrations in that book, with ‘evolution’ written on it —that was my foundation. It had now been shot full of holes, and was starting to fall apart under my feet. I closed the book, took a mental jump over to stand on that block labelled ‘creation’, and there and then I gave my life to Jesus Christ, the Creator, and accepted everything in His written Word, the Bible.’
Both Alf and Bronwen are now actively witnessing Christians, saved from eternal death. I asked what he, with his physics training, would say to a Christian who wanted to still hold to ‘millions of years’. Said Alf: ‘I’d say that I believe everything the Word of God tells me, and if God wanted to, He could have clicked his fingers and created everything in an instant. But because He recorded in His living Word that He took one day to do this, another day to do that, and so on, I would say to someone who believes the rest of the Bible, “Why on earth, or why in heaven, don’t you believe the first few pages of what God has written?”’ Alf agreed that the issue of death before sin was crucial, too — if the fossil record represents millions of years, then there was death, disease and suffering before Adam, which undermines the Gospel.
Since the Dubois/Bullimore rescue, Squadron Leader Alf Jonas has had frequent invitations to talk about his life as a Christian. He often draws parallels from the rescue. ‘I was there to provide, through the many Orion crews which worked in overlapping shifts, a concerned watch over these guys, during the 10 to 12 hours of daylight, for the full five days till the Adelaide could get there. God watches over us continually, 365 days of the year. And just as the shipwrecked yachtsmen were alone and cold in a hostile environment, there are many people today living in a cold and lonely place, the world without Christ. Just as we sent in the rescue ship, so God sent His son, Jesus, into our world to tell us about God and to rescue us.
‘Until they got back to safe harbour, Bullimore and Dubois were still riding out the choppy waves of the storm, with the hull of the Adelaide protecting them. In the same way in the Christian life, once you’re rescued, life is not automatically easy. There are still storms in your life, but you can ride them out because you’re safe in the rescue vessel, the Lord Jesus.’
Alf said that almost always, during these talks, he tells how evolution was a stumbling block for him, and how God wonderfully provided, the very next weekend, the right person at the right time, with the ‘Answers in Genesis’ he needed.
He finds it difficult to understand how someone can be a theistic evolutionist. ‘I’ve got to tell you,’ said Alf, ‘that when I was an evolutionist I had a lot more faith than I do now. Imagine believing that a zillion years ago lightning zapped some chemical cesspool, and from that all the different living things on this planet grew. I was blinded; it took a totally blind faith to believe that.’
- Squadron Leader is an air force rank equivalent to Major in the army. Return to text.
- Like a volunteer auxiliary in various parts of Australia. The two concerned, Kevin and Wendy May, are now with the Melbourne Friends of CMI group [Editor’s note July 2014: previously ‘Support Group’]. Return to text.