Page 2 of Airport


Mel nodded, resisting a temptation to take over and direct the search himself for the missing truck and driver. Action would be a therapy. The cold of several days, and dampness with it, had made Mel’s old war injury ache again–a reminder of Korea which never left him–and he could feel it now. He shifted, leaning, letting the good foot take his weight. The relief was momentary. Almost at once, in the new position, the ache resumed.

He was glad, a moment later, that he had not interfered. Danny was already doing the right thing–intensifying the truck search, pulling plows and men from the terminal area and directing them to the perimeter road. For the time being, the parking lots would have to be abandoned, and later there would be plenty of beefs about that. But the missing driver must be saved first.

Between calls, Danny warned Mel, “Brace yourself for more complaints. This search’ll block the perimeter road. We’ll hold up all the other food trucks till we find the guy.”

Mel nodded. Complaints were a stock-in-trade of an airport manager’s job. In this case, as Danny predicted, there would be a flood of protests when other airlines realized their food trucks were not getting through, whatever the reason.

There were some who would find it hard to believe that a man could be in peril of death from exposure at a center of civilization like an airport, but it could happen just the same. The lonelier limits of the airport were no place to wander without bearings on a night like this. And if the driver decided to stay with his truck and keep the motor running for warmth, it could quickly be covered by drifts, with deadly carbon monoxide accumulating beneath.

With one hand, Danny was using a red telephone; with the other, leafing through emergency orders–Mel’s orders, carefully drawn up for occasions such as this.

The red phone was to the airport’s duty fire chief. Danny summarized the situation so far.

“And when we locate the truck, let’s get an ambulance out there, and you may need an inhalator or heat, could be both. But better not roll until we know where exactly. We don’t want to dig you guys out, too.”

The sweat, in increasing quantity, was gleaming on Danny’s balding head. Mel was aware that Danny disliked running the Snow Control Desk and was happier in his own department of airport planning, sifting logistics and hypotheses of aviation’s future. Such things were comfortably projected well ahead, with time to think, not disconcertingly here-and-now like the problems of tonight. Just as there were people who lived in the past, Met thought, for the Danny Farrows, the future was a refuge. But, unhappy or not, and despite the sweat, Danny was coping.

Reaching over Danny’s shoulder, Mel picked up a direct line phone to Air Traffic Control. The tower watch chief answered.

“What’s the story on that Aéreo-Mexican 707?”

“Still there, Mr. Bakersfeld. They’ve been working a couple of hours trying to move it. No luck yet.”

That particular trouble had begun shortly after dark when an Aéreo-Mexican captain, taxiing out for takeoff, mistakenly passed to the right instead of left of a blue taxi light. Unfortunately, the ground to the right, which was normally grass covered, had a drainage problem, due to be worked on when winter ended. Meanwhile, despite the heavy snow, there was still a morass of mud beneath the surface. Within seconds of its wrong-way turn, the hundred and twenty ton aircraft was deeply mired.

When it became obvious that the aircraft could not get out, loaded, under its own power, the disgruntled passengers were disembarked and helped through mud and snow to hastily hired buses. Now, more than two hours later, the big jet was still stuck, its fuselage and tail blocking runway three zero.

Mel inquired, “The runway and taxi strip are still out of use?”

“Affirmative,” the tower chief reported. “We’re holding all outbound traffic at the gates, then sending them the long route to the other runways.”

“Pretty slow?”

“Slowing us fifty percent. Right now we’re holding ten flights for taxi clearance, another dozen waiting to start engines.”

It was a demonstration, Mel reflected, of how urgently the airport needed additional runways and taxiways. For three years he had been urging construction of a new runway to parallel three zero, as well as other operational improvements. But the Board of Airport Commissioners, under political pressure from downtown, refused to approve. The pressure was because city councilmen, for reasons of their own, wanted to avoid a new bond issue which would be needed for financing.

“The other thing,” the tower watch chief said, “is that with three zero out of use, we’re having to route takeoffs over Meadowood. The complaints have started coming in already.”

Mel groaned. The community of Meadowood, which adjoined the southwest limits of the airfield, was a constant thorn to himself and an impediment to flight operations. Though the airport had been established long before the community, Meadowood’s residents complained incessantly and bitterly about noise from aircraft overhead. Press publicity followed. It attracted even more complaints, with increasingly bitter denunciations of the airport and its management. Eventually, after long negotiations involving politics, more publicity and–in Mel Bakerfeld’s opinion–gross misrepresentation, the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration had conceded that jet takeoffs and landings directly over Meadowood would be made only when essential in special circumstances. Since the airport was already limited in its available runways, the loss in efficiency was considerable.

Moreover, it was also agreed that aircraft taking off toward Meadowood would–almost at once after becoming airborne–follow noise abatement procedures. This, in turn, produced protests from pilots, who considered the procedures dangerous. The airlines, however–conscious of the public furor and their corporate images–had ordered the pilots to conform.

Yet even this failed to satisfy the Meadowood residents. Their militant leaders were still protesting, organizing, and–according to latest rumors–planning legal harassment of the airport.

Mel asked the tower watch chief, “How many calls bave there been?” Even before the answer, he decided glumly that still more hours of his working days were going to be consumed by delegations, argument, and the same insoluble discussions as before.

“I’d say fifty at least, we’ve answered; and there’ve been others we haven’t. The phones start ringing right after every takeoff–our unlisted lines, too. I’d give a lot to know how they get the numbers.”

“I suppose you’ve told the people who’ve called that we’ve a special situation–the storm, a runway out of use.”

“We explain. But nobody’s interested. They just want the airplanes to stop coming over. Some of ‘em say that problems or not, pilots are still supposed to use noise abatement procedures, but tonight they aren’t doing it.”

“Good God!–if I were a pilot neither would I.” How could anyone of reasonable intelligence, Mel wondered, expect a pilot, in tonight’s violent weather, to chop back his power immediately after takeoff, and then go into a steeply banked turn on instruments–which was what noise abatement procedures called for.

“I wouldn’t either,” the tower chief said. “Though I guess it depends on your point of view. If I lived in Meadowood, maybe I’d feel the way they do.”

“You wouldn’t live in Meadowood. You’d have listened to the warnings we gave people, years ago, not to build houses there.”

“I guess so. By the way, one of my people told me there’s another community meeting over there tonight.”

“In this weather?”

“Seems they still plan to hold it, and the way we heard, they’re cooking up something new.”

“Whatever it is,” Mel predicted, “we’ll hear about it soon.”

Just the same, he reflected, if there was a public meeting at Meadowood, it was a pity to provide fresh ammunition so conveniently. Almost certainly the press and local politicians would be present, and the direct flights overhead, however necessary at this moment, would give them plenty to write and talk about. So the sooner the blocked runway–three zero–was back in use, the better it would be for all concerned. v “In a little while,” he told the tower chief, “I’ll go out on the field myself and see what’s happening. I’ll let you know what the situation is.”

“Right.”

Changing the subject, Mel inquired, “Is my brother on duty tonight?”

“Affirmative. Keith’s on radar watch–west arrival.”

West arrival, Mel knew, was one of the tough, tense positions in the tower. It involved supervising all incoming flights in the west quadrant. Mel hesitated, then remembered he had known the tower watch chief a long time. “Is Keith all right? Is he showing any strain?”

There was a slight pause before the answer. “Yes, he is. I’d say more than usual.”

Between the two men was the knowledge that Mel’s younger brother had lately been a source of anxiety to them both.

“Frankly,” the tower chief said, “I wish I could let him take things easier. But I can’t. We’re short-staffed and everybody is under the gun.” He added, “Including me.”

“I know you are, and I appreciate your watching out for Keith the way you have.”

“Well, in this job most of us have combat fatigue at one time or another.” Mel could sense the other choosing his words carefully. “Sometimes it shows up in the mind, sometimes in the gut. Either way, when it happens we try to help each other.”

“Thanks.” The conversation had not eased Mel’s anxiety. “I may drop in later.”

“Right, sir.” Thetower chief hung up.

The “sir” was strictly a courtesy. Mel had no authority over ATC, which answered only to the Federal Aviation Administration with headquarters in Washington. But relationships between controllers and airport management were good, and Mel saw to it they stayed that way.

An airport, any airport, was an odd complexity of overlapping authority. No single individual had supreme command, yet no one segment was entirely independent. As airport general manager, Mel’s was closest to an over-all assignment, but there were areas where be knew better than to intrude. Air Traffic Control was one, airline internal management another. He could, and did, intervene in matters affecting the airport as a whole or the welfare of people using it. He could peremptorily order an airline to remove a door sign which was misleading or faded to conform to terminal standards. But what went on behind the doors was, within reason, the airline’s exclusive business.

This was why an airport manager needed to be a tactician as well as versatile administrator.

Mel replaced the Snow Desk telephone. On another line, Danny Farrow was arguing with the parking lot supervisor, a harassed individual who for several hours had been fielding irate complaints from marooned car owners. People were asking: didn’t whoever ran the airport know it was snowing? And if they did, why didn’t someone get on the ball and move the stuff so a man could drive his car anywhere at any time, as was his democratic right?

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