Page 50 of Airport


Replacing the p.a. microphone in its forward cabin niche, she was aware that the aircraft’s taxiing pace had slowed; they must be near the takeoff point. These were the last few minutes she would have–for several hours to come–with any opportunity for private thoughts. After takeoff there would be no time for anything but work. Gwen had four stewardesses to supervise, as well as her own duties in the first class cabin. A good many overseas flights had male stewards directing cabin service, but Trans America encouraged senior women staffers like Gwen to take charge when they proved themselves capable.

Now the aircraft had stopped. From a window Gwen could see the lights of another aircraft ahead, several others in line behind. The one ahead was turning onto a runway; Flight Two would be next. Gwen pulled down a folding seat and strapped herself in. The other girls had found seats elsewhere.

She thought again: a bitter sweetness, and always the same single question recurring. Vernon’s child, and her own–an abortion or not?… Yes or no? To be or not to be?… They were on the runway… Abortion or no abortion?… The engines’ tempo was increasing. They were rolling already, wasting no time; in seconds, no more, they would be in the air… Yes or no? To permit to live or condemn to die? How, between love and reality, conscience and commonsense, did anyone decide?

AS IT HAPPENED, Gwen Meighen need not have made the announcement about power reduction.

On the flight deck, taxiing out, Captain Harris told Demerest gruffly, “I plan to ignore noise abatement procedures tonight.”

Vernon Demerest, who had just copied their complicated route clearance, received by radio–a task normally performed by the absent First Officer–nodded. “Damn right! I would too.”

Most pilots would have let it go at that, but, characteristically, Demerest pulled the flight log toward him and made an entry in the “Remarks” column: “N.A.P. not observed. Reason: weather, safety.”

Later, there might be trouble about that log entry, but it was the kind of trouble Demerest enjoyed and would meet head on.

The cockpit lights were dimmed. Pre-takeoff checks had been completed.

They had been lucky in the temporary traffic lull; it had allowed them to reach their takeoff point, at the head of runway two five, quickly, and without the long ground hiatus which had plagued most other flights tonight. Already though, for others following, the delay was building up again. Behind Trans America Flight Two was a growing line of waiting aircraft and a procession of others taxiing out from the terminal. On radio, the ATC ground controller was issuing a swift stream of instructions to flights of United Air Lines, Eastern, American, Air France, Flying Tiger, Lufthansa, Braniff, Continental, Lake Central, Delta, TWA, Ozark, Air Canada, Alitalia, and Pan Am, their assorted destinadons like an index of world geography.

Flight Two’s additional fuel reserves, ordered by Anson Harris to allow for extra ground running time, had not, after all, been needed. But even with the heavy fuel load, they were still within safe takeoff limits, as Second Officer Jordan had just calculated, spreading out his graphs once more, as he would many times tonight and tomorrow before the flight ended.

Both Demerest’s and Harris’s radios were now switched to runway control frequency.

On runway two five, immediately ahead of Trans America, a British VC-10 of BOAC, received word to go. It moved forward, with lumbering slowness at first, then swiftly. Its company colors–blue, white, and gold–gleamed briefly in the reflection of other aircrafts’ lights, then were gone in a flurry of whirling snow and black jet exhaust. Immediately the ground controller’s voice intoned, “Trans America Two, taxi into position, runway two five, and hold; traffic landing on runway one seven, left.”

One seven, left, was a runway which directly bisected runway two five. There was an element of danger in using the two runways together, but tower controllers had become adept at spacing aircraft–landing and taking off–so that no time was wasted, but no two airplanes reached the intersection at the same moment. Pilots, uncomfortably aware of the danger of collision when they heard by radio that both runways were in use, obeyed controllers’ orders implicitly.

Anson Harris swiftly and expertly jockeyed Flight Two on to runway two five.

Peering out, through snow flurries, Demerest could see the lights of an airplane, about to touch down on one seven. He thumbed his mike button. “Trans America Two, Roger. In position and holding. We see the landing traffic.”

Even before the landing aircraft had bisected their own runwav, the controller’s voice returned. “Trans America Two, cleared for takeoff. Go, man, go!”

The final three words were not in any air traffic control manual, but to controller and pilots they had identical meaning: Get the hell moving, now! There’s another flight landing right after the last. Already a fresh set of lights–ominously close to the airfield–was approaching runway one seven.

Anson Harris had not waited. His outspread fingers slid the four main throttles forward to their full extent. He ordered, “Trim the throttles,” and briefly held his toe brakes on, allowing power to build, as Demerest set pressure ratios evenly for all four engines. The engines’ sound deepened from a steady whine to a thunderous roar. Then Harris released the brakes and N-731-TA leaped forward down the runway.

Vernon Demerest reported to the tower, “Trans America Two on the roll,” then applied forward pressure to the control yoke while Harris used nose wheel steering with his left hand, his right returning to the throttles.

Speed built. Demerest called, “Eighty knots.” Harris nodded, released nose wheel steering and took over the control yoke… Runway lights flashed by in swirling snow. Near crescendo, the big jet’s power surged… At a hundred and thirty-two knots, as calculated earlier, Demerest called out “V-one”–notification to Harris that they had reached “decision speed” at which the takeoff could still be aborted and the aircraft stopped. Beyond V-one the takeoff must continue… Now they were past V-one… Still gathering speed, they hurtled through the runways’ intersection, glimpsing to their right a flash of landing lights of the approaching plane; in mere seconds the other aircraft would cross where Flight Two had just passed. Another risk–skillfully calculated–had worked out; only pessimists believed that one day such a risk might not… As speed reached a hundred and fifty-four knots, Harris began rotation, easing the control column back. The nose wheel left the runway surface; they were in lift-off attitude, ready to quit the ground. A moment later, with speed still increasing, they were in the air.

Harris said quietly, “Gear up.”

Demerest reached out, raising a lever on the central instrument panel. The sound of the retracting landing gear reverberated through the aircraft, then stopped with a thud as the doors to the wheel wells closed.

They were going up fast–passing through four hundred feet. In a moment, the night and clouds would swallow them.

“Flaps twenty.”

Still performing first officer duty, Demerest obediently moved the control pedestal flap selector from thirty degrees to twenty. There was a brief sensation of sinking as the wing flaps–which provided extra lift at takeoff–came partially upward.

“Flaps up.”

Now the flaps were fully retracted.

Demerest noted, for his report later, that at no point during takeoff could he have faulted Anson Harris’s performance in the slightest degree. He had not expeeted to. Despite the earlier needling, Vernon Demerest was aware that Harris was a top-grade captain, as exacting in performance–his own and others–as Demerest was himself. It was the reason Demerest had known in advance that their flight to Rome tonight would be, for himself, an easy journey.

Only seconds had passed since leaving the ground; now, still climbing steeply, they passed over the runway’s end, the lights below already dimming through cloud and falling snow. Anson Harris had ceased lookingout and was flying on instruments alone.

Second Officer Cy Jordan was reaching forward from his flight engineer’s seat, adjusting the throttles to equalize the power of all four engines.

Within the clouds there was a good deal of buffeting; at the outset of their journey, the passengers behind were getting a rough ride. Demerest snapped the “No Smoking” light switch off; the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign would remain on until Flight Two reached more stable air. Later, either Harris or Demerest would make an announcement to the passengers; but not yet. At the moment, flying was more important.

Demerest reported to departure control. “Turning portside one eight zero; leaving fifteen hundred feet.”

He saw Anson Harris smile at his use of the words “turning portside” instead of “turning left.” The former was correct but unofficial. It was one of Demerest’s own phrases; many veteran pilots had them–a minor rebellion against ATC officialese which nowadays all flying people were supposed to hew to. Controllers on the ground frequently learned to recognize individual pilots by such personal idioms.

A moment later Flight Two received radio clearance to climb to twenty-five thousand feet. Demerest acknowledged while Anson Harris kept the aircraft climbing. Up there in a few minutes from now they would be in clear, calm air, the storm clouds far below, and high above, in sight, the stars.

THE “TURNING PORTSIDE” phrase had been noticed on the ground–by Keith Bakersfeld.

Keith had returned to radar watch more than an hour ago, after the time spent in the controllers’ locker room, alone, remembering the past and reaffirming his intention of tonight.

Several times since then Keith’s hand had gone instinctively into his pocket, touching the key of his covertly rented room at the O’Hagan Inn. Otherwise, he had concentrated on the radarscope in front of him. He was now handling arrivals from the east and the continuing heavy traffic volume demanded intensive concentration.

He was not concerned directly with Flight Two; however, the departure controller was only a few feet away and in a brief interval between his own transmissions Keith heard the “turning portside” phrase and recognized it, along with his brother-in-law’s voice. Until then, Keith had no idea that Vernon Demerest was flying tonight; there was no reason why he should. Keith and Vernon saw little of each other. Like Mel, Keith had never achieved any close rapport with his brother-in-law, though there bad been none of the friction between them which marred relations between Demerest and Mel.

Shortly after Flight Two’s departure, Wayne Tevis, the radar supervisor, propelled his castor-equipped chair across to Keith.

“Take five, buddyboy,” Tevis said in his nasal Texan drawl. “I’ll spell you. Your big brother dropped in.”

As he unplugged his headset and turned, Keith made out the figure of Mel behind him in the shadows. He remembered his earlier hope that Mel would not come here tonight; at the time Keith feared that a meeting between the two of them might be more than he could handle emotionally, Now he found that he was glad Mel had come. They had always been good friends as well as brothers, and it was right and proper there should be a leave-taking, though Mel would not know that it was that–at least, until he learned tomorrow.

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