Page 24 of Airport


A human brain could achieve soaring imagery, conceive poetry and radarscopes, create the Sistine Chapel and a supersonic Concordé. Yet a brain, too—holding memory and conscience–could be compelling, self-tormenting, never resting; so that only death could end its persecution.

Death… with oblivion, forgetfulness; with rest at last.

It was the reason that Keith Bakersfeld had decided on suicide tonight.

He must go back soon to the radar room. There were still several hours of his shift remaining, and he had made a pact with himself to finish his air traffic control duty for tonight. He was not sure why, except that it seemed the right thing to do, and he had always tried to do the right thing, conscientiously. Perhaps being conscientious was a family trait; he and his brother Mel always seemed to have that much in common.

Anyway, when the duty was done–his final obligation finished–he would be free to go to the O’Hagan Inn, where he had registered late this afternoon. Once there, without wasting time, he would take the forty Nembutal capsules–sixty grains in all–which were in a drugstore pillbox in his pocket. He had husbanded the capsules, a few at a time, over recent months. They bad been prescribed to give him sleep, and from each prescription which Natalie’s druggist had delivered, he had carefully extracted half and hidden it. A few days ago he had gone to a library, checking a reference book on clinical toxicology to assure himself that the quantity of Nembutal he had was well in excess of a fatal dose.

His present duty shift would end at midnight. Soon after, when he had taken the capsules, sleep would come quickly and with finality.

He looked at his watch, holding its face toward the light from outside. It was almost nine o’clock. Should he return to the radar room now? No–stay a few minutes longer. When he went, he wanted to be calm, his nerves steady for whatever these last few hours of duty might contain.

Keith Bakersfeld fingered the O’Hagan Inn key again. Room 224.

It was strange about the coincidence of figures; that his room number tonight, allocated by chance, should have in it a “24.” There were people who believed in that kind of thing–numerology; the occult significance of numbers. Keith didn’t, though if he did, those third and last figures, prefaced by a “2,” could be taken to mean 24 for the second time.

The first 24 had been a date, a year and a half ago. Keith’s eyes misted, as they had so many times before, when he remembered. The date was seared–with self-reproach and anguish–in his memory. It was the wellspring of his darksome spirit, his utter desolation. It was the reason he would end his life tonight.

A summer’s day; morning. Thursday, June the twenty-fourth.

IT WAS A DAY for poets, lovers, and color photographers; the kind of day which people stored up in their minds, to open like a scrapbook when they wanted to remember, years later, all that was best of any time and place. In Leesburg, Virginia, not far from historic Harpers Ferry, the sky was clear at dawn–CAVU, the weather reports said, which is aviation shorthand for “ceiling and visibility unlimited”; and conditions stayed that way, except for a few cotton-wool tufts of scattered cumulus by afternoon. The sun was warm, but not oppressive. A gentle breeze from the Blue Ridge Mountains carried the scent of honeysuckle.

On his way to work that morning–driving to the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center at Leesburg–Keith Bakersfeld had seen wild roses blooming. He thought of a line from Keats which he had learned in high school–“For Summer has o’erbrimmed…” It seemed appropriate to such a day.

He had driven, as usual, across the Virginia border–from Adamstown, Maryland, where he and Natalie, with their two boys shared a pleasant rented home. The top of the Volkswagen convertible was down; he had traveled without haste, enjoying the benevolence of air and sun, and when the familiar low, modern buildings of the Air Route Center came in sight, he had felt less tense than usual. Afterward, he wondered if that, in itself, had been a cause of the events which followed.

Even inside the Operations Wing–thick-walled and windowless, where daylight never penetrated–Keith had an impression that the glory of the summer’s day outside had somehow percolated inward. Among the seventy or more shirtsleeved controllers on duty there seemed a sense of lightness, in contrast to the pressure-driven earnestness with which work proceeded on most days of the year. One reason, perhaps, was that the traffic load was less than usual, due to the exceptionally clear weather. Many non-commercial flights–private, military, even a few airliners–were operating on VFR–“visual flight rules,” or the see-and-be-seen method by which aircraft pilots kept track of their own progress through the air, without need to report by radio to ATC air route controllers.

The Washington Air Route Center at Leesburg was a key control point. From its main operations room all air traffic on airways over six eastern seaboard states was observed and directed. Added up, the control area came to more than a hundred thousand square miles. Within that area, whenever an aircraft which had filed an instrument flight plan left an airport, it came under Leesburg observation and control. It remained under that control either until its journey was complete or it passed out of the area. Aircraft coming into the area were handed over from other control centers, of which there were twenty across the continental United States. The Leesburg center was among the nation’s busiest. It included the southern end of the “northeast corridor” which daily accommodated the world’s heaviest concentration of air traffic.

Oddly, Leesburg was distant from any airport, and forty miles from Washington, D.C., from which the Air Route Center took its name. The center itself was in Virginia countryside–a cluster of low, modem buildings with a parking lot–and was surrounded on three sides by rolling farmland. Nearby was a small stream named Bull Run–its fame enshrined forever by two battles of the Civil War. Keith Bakersfeld had once gone to Bull Run after duty, reflecting on the strange and diametric contrast between Leesburg’s past and present.

This morning, despite awareness of the summer’s day outside, everything in the spacious, cathedral-like main control room was operating as usual. The entire control area–larger than a football field–was, as always, dimly lighted to allow proper viewing of the several dozen radar screens, arranged in tiers and rows under overhanging canopies. The control room noise level was what any newcomer noticed first. From a flight data area, with great banks of computers, assorted electronic gear and automatic teletypes, arose the continuous whir and chatter of machinery. Nearby, from dozens of positions where controllers sat, directing aerial traffic, came a ceaseless hum of voice radio exchanges on a host of frequencies. The machinery and human voices merged, producing a constant noise level which was all-pervading, yet strangely muted by acoustic, sound-absorbent walls and ceilings.

Above the working level of the control room was an observation bridge, running the room’s full width, where occasional visitors were brought to watch proceedings below. The control room activity looked, from this eyrie, not unlike that of a stock exchange. Controllers rarely glanced up at the bridge, being trained to ignore anything which might diminish concentration on their work, and since only a few especially privileged visitors ever made it to the control room floor, controllers and outsiders rarely met. Thus the work was not only high pressure, but also monastic–the last condition added to by the total absence of women.

In an annex to the control room Keith slipped off his jacket, and came in wearing the crisp white shirt which was like a uniform for air traffic controllers. No one knew why controllers wore white shirts on duty; there was no rule about it, but most of them did. As he passed other control positions while heading for his own, a few colleagues wished him a friendly “good morning,” and that was unusual too. Normally, the immediate sense of pressure on entering the control area made it customary to give a hurried nod or a brief “Hi!”–sometimes not even that.

The control sector which Keith regularly worked comprised a segment of the Pittsburgh-Baltimore area. The sector was monitored by a team of three. Keith was radar contioller, his job to maintain contact with aircraft and to issue radio instructions. Two assistant controllers handled flight data and airport communications; a supervisor coordinated activities of the other three. Today, in addition, the team had a trainee controller whom Keith had been instructing, at intervals, over the past several weeks.

Others of the team were drifting in at the same time as Keith Bakersfeld, taking position behind the men they were to relieve, and allowing a few minutes while they absorbed the “picture” in their minds. All through the big control room, at other positions, the same thing was happening.

Standing at his own sector, behind the radar controller about to go off duty, Keith already felt his mental acuity sharpen, his speed of thinking consciously accelerate. For the next eight hours, except for two brief work breaks, his brain must continue to operate that way.

Traffic, he observed, was averagely busy for the time of day, taking into account the widespread good weather. On the scope’s dark surface, some fifteen pinpoints of bright green light–or “targets,” as radarmen called them–indicated aircraft in the air. Allegheny had a Convair 440 at eight thousand feet, approaching Pittsburgh. Behind the Allegheny Right, at varying altitudes, was a National DC-8, an American Airlines 727, two private aircraft–a Lear jet and a Fairchild F-27–and another National, this time a prop-jet Electra. Several other flights, Keith noted, were due to come on the screen at any moment, both from other sectors and as a result of takeoffs from Friendship Airport, Baltimore. Going the opposite way, toward Baltimore, was a Delta DC-9, about to be taken over by Friendship approach control; behind this flight were a TWA, a Piedmont Airlines Martin, another private flight, two Uniteds, and a Mohawk. Height and distance separations of all aircraft were satisfactory, Keith observed, except that the two Uniteds heading for Baltimore were a little close. As if the controller still at the scope had read Keith’s mind, he gave the second United a delaying diversionary course.

“I have the picture,” Keith said quietly. The other controller nodded and moved out.

Keith’s supervisor, Perry Yount, plugged in his headset above Keith’s head and leaned over, making his own assessment of the traffic situation. Perry was a tall, lean Negro, a few years younger than Keith. He had a quick, retentive memory which could store a mass of flight data, then repeat it back, as a whole or in pieces, with computer accuracy. Perry was a comforting man to have around when there was trouble.

Keith had already accepted several new flights and handed over others when the supervisor touched his shoulder. “Keith, I’m running two positions this shift–this and the next one. We’re a man short. You okay for a while?”

Keith nodded. “Roger.” He radioed a course correction to an Eastern 727, then motioned toward the trainee controller, George Wallace, who had slipped into a seat beside him. “I’ve got George to keep an eye on me.

“Okay.” Perry Yount unplugged his headset and moved to the adjacent console. The same kind of thing had happened occasionally before, and was handled without ditliculty. Perry Yount and Keith had worked together for several years; each was aware that he could trust the other.

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